Why the Rolling Stone Fiasco Is a Sign of a Much Deeper Problem

04/06/2015 04:35 pm ET | Updated Jun 06, 2015

Rolling Stone has finally retracted its controversial article "A Rape on Campus" after the completion of an independent report by Columbia University's journalism school, which criticized the magazine for shoddy journalism and unsubstantiated accusations. This is a welcome development, but the fact that this incident occurred at all should give us pause.

When the scandal surrounding the article first surfaced, Coco McPherson, who is in charge of fact checking at Rolling Stone, refused to acknowledge any real problem and the need for changes, saying, "I one-hundred percent do not think that the policies that we have in place failed. I think decisions were made around those because of the subject matter."

That particular statement and the saga itself are symptomatic of a much deeper problem confronting America today.

We live in an age of mass hysteria and knee-jerk reactions, which can cause incredible damage to both the central cause being fought for (in this case, the very serious problem of rape) and the reputations of the people involved. No sooner does an allegation involving hot-button topics like race or gender surface than it quickly becomes a media and social-media inferno.

Lost in this process (not always, but too often) is a sense of balance and even the facts. Outrage trumps the truth, and sensationalist speculation becomes the norm. Dissenting voices are quickly "shamed" into silence. This trend is extremely dangerous.

When even a respected publication like Rolling Stone makes bombshell allegations of criminal activities without checking their facts because the subject matter has a special status in the editors' eyes, then journalism is headed down a very slippery, subjective slope, and the credibility of the press itself is at stake. The magazine's desire to protect the victim is perfectly defensible, but the foundation of the story itself can't be untrue. In an era where the public is easily misled through spurious information on the Internet, it is particularly important for the bastions of journalism to get it right.

An even bigger problem is that both Rolling Stone's laissez-faire attitude about their grossly inaccurate reporting (despite the debacle, still no one is being fired) and some people's argument that the article being wrong or making false accusations doesn't really matter because the issue of rapes on campus is far more important make it that much harder for legitimate claims to be taken seriously and get addressed. In fact, lying or failing to uncover the truth about such a serious crime is tantamount to mocking the crime itself in the self-righteousness of personal ideology.

If as Americans we agree to shed our obligation to be responsible and balanced simply because we feel strongly about a particular issue, then we are replacing one evil with another and creating an even bigger problem in the process. Blind outrage without facts to back it up doesn't produce justice.

McPherson was likely right about one thing: that the subject matter of Rolling Stone's article had an impact on how it was treated at the magazine. But if the subject matter really is that important, then shouldn't the degree of due diligence we conduct before speaking about it, and certainly before making powerful statements, be that much higher?

Rolling Stone is not the only culpable party here. So are the readers who buy into sensationalist stories without testing their veracity because it conforms to their personal beliefs or triggers and then promote that sensationalism through their own endorsement and defense of such stories. The shouting down of critical voices and the public shaming of anyone who dares to question the zeitgeist further exacerbates this situation and makes meaningful dialogue nearly impossible.

That is not a search for truth or justice. That is a travesty of those things and a recipe for disaster.

Sanjay Sanghoee is a business commentator. He has worked at investment banks Lazard Freres and Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, as well as at hedge fund Ramius Capital.