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Good Reporting Isn't Impossible—It's Just Hard

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This morning, Buzzfeed dropped a spectacular, sadly unsurprising story in which Jim DeRogatis further detailed the unsettling sex life of 50-year-old R&B singer R. Kelly, who was acquitted on charges of child pornography in 2008 and is now, according to DeRogatis’s report, running an “abusive cult” within his inner circle of young women.

While the women discussed in this article are (barely) of legal age, Kelly’s behavior, as described by Buzzfeed, is still incredibly disturbing. Initially drawn to him because they dream of stardom and mentorship, these women instead find every aspect of their life dominated by Kelly. From Buzzfeed:

Three former members of Kelly’s inner circle ... said six women live in properties rented by Kelly in Chicago and the Atlanta suburbs, and he controls every aspect of their lives: dictating what they eat, how they dress, when they bathe, when they sleep, and how they engage in sexual encounters that he records.


Other music writers rightly lauded DeRogatis, a former Chicago Sun-Times critic who has long doggedly covered Kelly, for his unceasing pursuit of the story, while discussing whether this will be the news that finally tanks Kelly’s career. One especially eyebrow-raising tweet, however, came from Jessica Hopper, formerly Pitchfork senior editor, editor in chief of The Pitchfork Review, and editorial director of music for MTV News:

This tweet is part of a larger thread detailing how more music writers need to learn basic investigative journalism skills, but the part about these major, unpublished stories is far more striking. Hopper has been one of the more powerful editors in music writing in recent years, and at MTV News in particular, she had both tremendous editorial resources and a stated mission to do prestige journalism. How did these scandalous stories—which, if they stand comparison to DeRogatis’s, basically any outlet in the country would love to have run—not get published under her management? (This is an even more pertinent question given her implication that she knows even more than DeRogatis reported.) I’ll give you a hint: It definitely wasn’t because junior writers don’t know how to do public-records requests.

There are any number of reasons why stories don’t run: trails go cold, decisive proof remains elusive, sources back out, tips run into dead ends, lawyers get involved. But it being “impossible” to run this sort of story is self-evidently untrue, and it’s all the more frustrating to hear such a claim from someone who has, since she left her job in PR, become one of the very people deciding whether investigative stories like this do run.


Ideally, Hopper could have used her clout to push these stories, and ones like them, into the public eye. Instead, here she seems to be throwing her hands up in resignation about the industry’s failures on sensitive topics, even as she rightly credits the work of a reporter whose hard coverage of the Kelly story she used to criticize.

Hopefully there are good reasons this story wasn’t published before today. (We reached out to Hopper asking for clarification, and we’ll update if she responds.) But it’s worth considering her complaint in light of her time at MTV News, when the outlet allowed input on articles from artist reps, and deleted a post critical of Chance the Rapper. Based on reports since the venture’s collapse, it’s basically impossible to imagine MTV News running any kind of investigative takedown of a relevant artist. Via Spin’s Jordan Sargent:

MTV News’ music coverage under Hopper’s direction was inconsistent when it came to at least one of the core tenets of journalistic integrity–publicly standing by writers when they wrote freely and truthfully about the people they were tasked with covering. Sources high up in the staff say that neither Hopper or [MTV News editorial director Dan] Fierman felt they had much say when push came to shove on articles that network brass wanted deleted, with both being made to feel that they would lose their jobs if they didn’t comply.


Even if she was unable to investigate—or assign investigations of—tough stories during her tenure at MTV, that would not make it “impossible” for stories like this to be published. And if it was impossible at the outlets where she held power, this would still amount to Hopper blaming a system in which she was a relative higher-up for not allowing publication of important, true stories, while essentially blaming untrained reporters—rather than editors who prize corporate relations over truthful journalism—for not breaking these stories.

At MTV, Hopper allowed a powerful publication she helped run work as a public-relations machine for A-list artists, and now shrugs her shoulders over the negative stories that couldn’t get through the rave reviews. If it’s harder than it should be for stories like DeRogatis’s to be published, this sort of thing is a lot of the reason why. It also makes it all the more impressive that Buzzfeed and DeRogatis cut through every reason why they couldn’t do something, and simply did it anyway.


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