It’s been more than half a year since Rolling Stone finally fessed up in full to what was widely declared as “one of the worst journalistic catastrophes” in the history of printing words on scraps of dead trees, but the damage control efforts and the corresponding fallout have continued in the background. After their completely bogus campus gang rape story from the University of Virginia (UVA) fell apart, a dean from the university sued the magazine for a six figure judgement which is still making its way through the courts. In that case, the dean was arguing that damage was caused to the college as a whole by Rolling Stone’s biased and dishonest reporting, but what about the actual fraternity which was directly blamed for the fictitious assault? Their entire national organization fell under a black cloud as a result of the accusations made by the non-rape victim.
It’s taken a while, but they have now followed in the dean’s footsteps and decided to take on the magazine in the same fashion. (Huffington Post)
The fraternity that was the focus of a debunked Rolling Stone article about a gang rape filed a $25 million lawsuit against the magazine Monday, saying the piece made the frat and its members “the object of an avalanche of condemnation worldwide.”
The complaint, filed in Charlottesville Circuit Court, also names Sabrina Rubin Erdely as a defendant. It is the third filed in response to the November 2014 article entitled “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA.” Three individual fraternity members and recent graduates of the University of Virginia are suing for at least $225,000 each, and a university associate dean who claims she was portrayed as the “chief villain” is suing the magazine for more than $7.5 million.
None of these cases are going to be easy or clear cut if they come in front of a jury. The question of whether or not the magazine itself is liable on top of the failed reporting of Sabrina Rubin Erdely is a bit more cut and dried. The editors were responsible for checking her work and they approved what was obviously a hugely inflammatory piece which would paint the fraternity and the university in a horrible light. Also, from most of what I’ve been able to find on the subject, Erdely is no longer a reporter at the magazine. She was still attached to them as recently as May of this year, but there are no articles listed under her byline since then. In terms of a successful suit, the reporter may be an empty pocket so the attorneys for the injured parties would likely go after the magazine anyway.
But assuming that this gets into a courtroom, the plaintiffs will have to show damages in some form, even if they can’t demonstrate reduced membership or other direct financial harm. Still, tarnishing an institution’s reputation traditionally has value, so there’s probably a fair case to make. The problem comes with the overall perceptions involved. You’re walking on delicate ground when you make a public case which could be painted (falsely) as being insensitive to actual victims of sexual assault. Further, fraternities don’t exactly have a widespread reputation as the homes of angelic choirboys.
But the number of lawsuits which are piling up may play in the plaintiff’s favor here, oddly enough. If they’ve got anything going for them it’s the now broadly accepted view that Rolling Stone’s reputation has crashed and burned and Erdely’s reputation as a “journalist” of any sort is toast. The national media, by virtue of playing this story up 24/7 like the second coming of Christ until it finally collapsed ensured that the public was focused on the details. The circus of apologies which followed only added to that perception. With all of that in mind, Rolling Stone might eventually decide that a few fat checks written before this reaches a jury might be the more prudent course of action.