Normally in lawsuits like these, one would take care to wait until all the evidence emerged before reaching conclusions. In this case, though, the evidence has mostly emerged already, thanks to investigative reporters who tore about the Rolling Stone article “A Rape On Campus” and its author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely. The magazine eventually admitted that the story was false, and an independent Columbia review shredded the magazine and the reporter for failing even the most basic journalistic standards.
In this case, what’s left to do but divvy up the cash?
T. Rees Shapiro, who helped uncover the fraud at Rolling Stone, writes the follow-up for the Washington Post (via Gabriel Malor):
A University of Virginia associate dean of students filed a multimillion-dollar defamation lawsuit against Rolling Stone magazine Tuesday, alleging that it portrayed her as callous and indifferent to allegations of sexual assault on campus and made her the university’s “chief villain” in a now-debunked article about a fraternity gang rape.
Nicole Eramo is seeking more than $7.5 million in damages from Rolling Stone; its parent company, Wenner Media; and Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the investigative journalist who wrote the explosive account of sexual assault on the campus in Charlottesville. …
“Erdely and Rolling Stone’s epic failure of journalism was the result of biased, agenda-driven reporting,” the lawsuit says. The suit claims that the magazine’s account represented “a purposeful avoidance of the truth, and an utter failure to investigate the accuracy of Jackie’s claims.”
The magazine also printed a photo illustration of Eramo that she argues is inflammatory; the lawsuit says that the magazine turned a mundane Cavalier Daily student newspaper photo of her addressing a classroom and turned it into a wild-eyed image of her sitting in an office and giving a thumbs-up in front of a distraught sexual assault victim as protesters hold signs outside. The lawsuit claims the doctored image “demonstrates the lengths Erdely and Rolling Stone were willing to go to portray Dean Eramo as a villain.”
The complaint itself is worth reading for those who immersed themselves in the unraveling of Rolling Stone’s credibility. It calls Erdely “a wanton journalist,” and the magazine “a malicious publisher who was more concerned about selling magazines to boost the economic bottom line for its faltering magazine, than they were about discovering the truth or actual facts.” For those who followed the case, it’s difficult to come to any other conclusion about l’affaire Erdely, Wenner, et al.
The allegation of malice is key to the lawsuit, and the complaint presents the case for it over and over again. If the plaintiffs cannot prove malice, their lawsuit will fail. The wild accusations printed and initially defended by Erdely and Rolling Stone clearly show a reckless disregard for truth, though, and the complaint ties that to the allegations of malice. The use of the pictures is one such point, and this is probably the key:
They had serious doubts about the truth of the disparaging claims they planned to make about Dean Eramo, but intentionally violated commonly accepted journalistic norms and consciously failed to investigate sources and information that they believed would have revealed the falsity of the charges.
They didn’t just violate “commonly accepted journalistic norms,” they violated their own policies to avoid having to dump the story before publication. Why? The easiest conclusion was that Erdely and Rolling Stone really wanted to humiliate UVa and Eramo in particular, which is … actual malice. A jury won’t find it difficult to make that leap.
Another point in the plaintiff’s favor is that neither Erdely nor Rolling Stone were smart enough to shut up once the charade began to fall apart:
From November 26, 2014 until December 5, 2014 – when Rolling Stone was finally forced to admit publicly that it had lost faith in the story, after the fraternity involved presented information concretely repudiating Erdely and Rolling Stone’s account – Erdely and Rolling Stone continued to conduct a nationwide press tour in which they repeatedly and callously doubled down on their false claims that Dean Eramo was indifferent to Jackie’s allegations, that she did nothing in response to them, that she did not report them to the police, and that she instead sought to suppress Jackie’s allegations and discourage her from reporting them. Erdely and Rolling Stone also continued to profess publicly absolute faith in Jackie’s credibility, despite knowing privately that she was not credible.
This probably won’t be the only lawsuit to come against these respondents, either. The fraternity announced that it had hired counsel to look into the possibility of a lawsuit, and the University of Virginia might have a case, too [see update]. Shapiro notes that UVa issued a statement of support for Eramo’s action yesterday.
If successful, the lawsuit will attach a heavy penalty for fabulism that thus far has not occurred often in the American media. In previous celebrated cases of fabulism — Stephen Glass and TNR, for instance — the publications suffered humiliation, but didn’t face large public lawsuits like Eramo’s action. Rolling Stone may have hoped that the humiliation would suffice this time, but they curiously insist that Erdely will continue to report for them, despite a lengthy history of questionable stories that start to crumble under legitimate scrutiny — a history that Eramo’s lawsuit includes in paragraphs 36-44. Only when publications like Rolling Stone have to start paying large judgments for their lack of integrity will that integrity improve, or perhaps more likely, eliminate a source of hackery from the marketplace. That should include Erdely, and anyone who wants to hire her, Rolling Stone included.
Update: As Gabriel Malor reminds me, UVa won’t have a case, because as a government-run institution, it cannot sue for defamation, libel, or slander. Its employees can if they are specifically and explicitly defamed, so Eramo is probably the only official that has a case for defamation. I’ve edited the paragraph to reflect this, but left enough of the original to anchor the correction.
There are several possible reasons Erdely has not yet been fired. Publications are often reluctant to give in to outside pressure when it comes to matters of personnel. If Rolling Stone were to fire her, there is at least a possibility that a jury would view it as an admission of wrongdoing, which could bolster Eramo’s lawsuit. Then again, prompt firings could have been used to argue for Rolling Stone’s lack of malice in portraying Eramo as callous and indifferent.
Whether or not Erdely is fired or eventually resigns, her career in journalism is probably over.
That may only be true if a jury forces Rolling Stone to pay big damages for publishing Erdely’s work. Otherwise, what’s the disincentive, especially for publications who want to grind the same axes as Erdely?