Testimony from embattled Rolling Stone reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely might might come down to a journalistic equivalent of Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play? The Daily Progress reports that Erdely underwent eight hours of questioning in the defamation of character lawsuit brought by University of Virginia dean Nicole Eramo, and tried to offer a defense of the fabulism that she and Rolling Stone ended up publishing as fact. Her summation, however, leaves much to be desired:
Sabrina Rubin Erdely vehemently defended some of her reporting choices — and fell on her sword for others — in more than eight hours of testimony with an attorney for Nicole Eramo, the University of Virginia administrator suing Erdely and Rolling Stone magazine for $7.5 million.
Among her most striking statements were her final words, in which she said unequivocally that Eramo was not damaged by her reporting in “A Rape on Campus” and that her portrayal was “fair and accurate” — as were many other aspects of the piece.
“I stand by everything I wrote … except for anything that came from Jackie,” Erdely said.
Er … that’s not quite what they teach in J-school, I suspect. Jackie, in this case, was almost the entirety of Erdely’s narrative in the now-debunked article, and it was the entirety of the reporting on Eramo. However, the reporting on Eramo did not include the entirety of information available to Erdely and Rolling Stone, as it turns out. Erdely had originally included a passage that made Eramo look much more sympathetic, but that ended up on the cutting room floor, the Daily Beast reported earlier this week:
Eramo’s lawyers asked her about each quote attributed to her in the Rolling Stone article. Eramo disputed that she ever said any of them. She added that no one atRolling Stone contacted Eramo later on during the fact-checking process.
Earlier in the day, during opening statements, Eramo’s lawyers revealed that Jackie forwarded an email to the reporter showing that the dean had set up two meetings with police so Jackie could report the alleged rape to authorities.
A reference to these meetings, her lawyers said, was included in a draft of the article but was later edited out.
Who cut it out? It’s not entirely clear, but Ashe Schow reported on Wednesday that Rolling Stone knew about the information, and yet published the article without it:
But lawyers for Rolling Stone argued that Eramo only set up two meetings between Jackie and police after Jackie came back to her to report that members of the same fraternity had thrown a bottle that hit her in the face.
“We did know there was a meeting with police,” said Rolling Stone lawyer Scott Sexton in his opening statement, according to Kingkade. Sexton added that the “meeting was about the bottle incident.”
This point is critical to Eramo’s case. In order to prevail in a defamation/libel case, a plaintiff has to prove both that the information was false and that the defendant either knew it to be so, or acted so recklessly in publishing it as to demonstrate malice. Leaving that information out of the article allowed Erdely and Rolling Stone to portray Eramo as callous and only interested in protecting the school rather than the students. The magazine wants to split hairs as to their understanding of the nature of the meetings, but the existence of the information in the earlier draft — even watered down, as Schow notes — give Eramo’s argument on malice a boost, at least.
This exchange, picked up by ABC News, adds to the argument:
“I feel like it would be really f—- up if they decide that it’s Dean Eramo who’s giving them bad publicity and they kick her in the bucket when the problem’s not her,” Jackie said to Erdely in the taped interview. “It’s people above her, they’re the problem, and she just does what she can.”
Excerpts from their conversations reviewed Thursday illustrate Erdely’s concerns about Eramo.
“I know you love her but it’s not clear she’s not doing right by you or by the university in this scenario. … I think this situation is probably being mishandled … and she may be putting the community at risk,” Erdely said.
In another exchange with Jackie, Erdely is recorded as saying: “So why, why isn’t Dean Eramo f—— doing anything?” Erdely says. “This makes me so mad, actually.”
That certainly sounds like malice, no? Speaking of knowing of falsity, Erdely finally did figure out that Jackie was lying to her, and alerted Rolling Stone in an e-mail with the subject line, “Our worst nightmare“:
Journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely fired off an email to Rolling Stone editors in the middle of the night with a sobering subject line: “Our worst nightmare.” She wrote that she no longer trusted “Jackie,” the central figure in her article about a gang rape at the University of Virginia and that she believed the magazine should issue a retraction.
As an attorney representing a university administrator who is suing Rolling Stone over the piece read the email aloud in court Thursday, Erdely broke down.
“Are those your words?” attorney Libby Locke asked.
“Yes,” Erdely said softly, tears streaming down her face.
This creates another problem for Rolling Stone. Once informed of Jackie’s fabulism, the magazine just added an editor’s note to the top of the article, but did not remove it from their website until months later. The Daily Progress reported that Erdely insists that was an effective retraction, but the attorneys begged to differ:
Locke countered that the appendage was only labeled an “Editor’s Note,” and that an official retraction came in April 2015, following a scathing review from the Columbia Journalism School of Erdely’s reporting process and the magazine’s actions. She added that the note did not once apologize to Eramo directly, only indirectly as a member of UVa’s administration.
While Erdely expressed that Eramo was included in that apology, Locke pointed out that Eramo was referenced by name in the article more than 30 times, and was even the focal point of the article’s accompanying photo illustration.
Erdely wouldn’t admit that Eramo had been damaged by the article, and argued that since Eramo had gotten a raise since then, it’s a no-harm, no-foul situation. In the end, she insisted that she had been fair to Eramo, except of course for what Jackie had told her — which was everything Erdely bothered to find out.
Erdely’s back on the stand today, this time for questioning by her own attorneys. Don’t expect many bombshells from those exchanges, but it will be interesting to see whether the plaintiff’s attorneys find points for re-examination raised by the defense.