We’ve been covering the story of the pseudonymous “Jackie” and A Rape on Campus for what seems like most of my life at this point. The latest, though likely not the last chapter in this epic saga has been the lawsuit brought by the former University of Virginia administrator against Rolling Stone magazine for defaming her. The trial itself has brought a number of revelations about the work of Sabrina Rubin Erdely and how she so completely failed in her efforts as a journalist in documenting her story. It was later apologized for and then fully retracted.
Today the case sits with the jury and one might imagine that Nicole Eramo has a clear path to victory. But after hearing how the judge has handled the proceedings, my money is on Rolling Stone to prevail. (USA Today)
Jurors are expected to begin deliberating Wednesday in a defamation trial against Rolling Stone magazine for its tale of a gruesome gang rape at the University of Virginia.
Former university administrator Nicole Eramo sued the magazine for $7.5 million, claiming a 2014 story entitled “A Rape on Campus” — that was eventually debunked — painted her as insensitive to the needs of sexual assault victims and more concerned with protecting the school’s reputation.
On Tuesday, lawyers for both sides made their closing arguments in the case. Eramo’s attorney Tom Clare said the story’s author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, ignored facts and neglected to check sources that would have gutted her story line.
Clare argued that Erdely set out to tell a story of “institutional indifference” and stuck with a preconceived narrative. “Once they decided what the article was going to be about, it didn’t matter what the facts were,” Clare said.
Given how utterly the Rape on Campus story fell apart and the fact that even the police have written the event off as something which never happened, how could Rolling Stone possibly win? We get a hint from one passage of the coverage which didn’t attract much media attention. It has to do with a ruling that the judge made mid-way through the proceedings.
The judge has dismissed Eramo’s claim that the story, when taken as a whole, implied Eramo was a “false friend” to Jackie — a claim that Rolling Stone called a “critical element” of her case. Eramo must prove that the magazine’s statements about her made her appear “odious, infamous or ridiculous” and that the magazine acted with “actual malice.”
That ruling is likely a deal breaker for Eramo. The entire premise of her claim is that the depiction of her actions during the early days after the accusations surfaced made her out to be essentially “an enemy” of Jackie. Such a story undermines her professional credibility, making it seem as if she was uninterested in the welfare of the students and sacrificed Jackie’s safety in favor of protecting the institution’s reputation. The judge has essentially kicked that claim to the curb. In order to prove her case now, the jury will have to be convinced that Erdely maliciously defamed her and intentionally sought to damage her by knowingly printing false information.
From everything we’ve learned so far, that’s not the case here. All that’s really been proven is that Erdely is a terrible reporter who was easily fooled by someone peddling a story and that her editors were equally incompetent in checking and approving her work for publication. Sad as it may be, you can’t imprison people for incompetence nor can you often hold them accountable for damages in a civil suit such as this one. If I had to place a bet on this, assuming that the defense did an even marginally competent job in laying out the criteria to the jury, Rolling Stone will get off the hook.
The real cause of the harm to Eramo here is, of course, Jackie. And in a more general sense she damaged Rolling Stone and the entire women’s rights movement with her bogus and fully discredited tale. Perhaps we should be asking why a case couldn’t be brought against her for making such outrageous claims which wound up bruising the fraternity and the university. But that’s not going to happen either. First of all, bringing any sort of suit against someone claiming to be a rape victim – even a completely discredited one – would be so toxic in today’s politically correct climate that it wouldn’t even be considered. For similar reasons I highly doubt you’ll see criminal charges against her for filing a false complaint. (Particularly since the accused rapists wound up being imaginary.) Plus, she’s already set down the groundwork for an insanity defense by talking about how her memory is blacked out from trauma and she’s suffering from PTSD, etc. etc. etc.
I may wind up being wrong here and I hope that I am, but I doubt it. Given the very specific nature of what Eramo will have to prove in order to receive a judgement in her favor, I’m guessing she’s going to lose.