Call it the most expensive story Rolling Stone ever published — and this is just the down payment. The jury in the defamation suit against the magazine and its reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, socked them both with a $3 million judgment in favor of Dean Nicole Eramo of the University of Virginia. This judgment lights the path for other lawsuits brought by people involved in the story who cannot possibly fall under this trial judge’s definition of “public person,” and who will have a lower bar to clear for defamation as a result:
Jurors awarded a University of Virginia administrator $3 million Monday for herabout the school’s handling of a brutal gang rape a fraternity house.
The 10-member jury’s decision came after they concluded Friday that the magazine, its publisher and reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely were responsible for defamation, with actual malice, of former associate dean of students Nicole Eramo in the 2014 story “A Rape on Campus.” …
Jurors awarded $2 million to Eramo for statements made by Erdely and $1 million for the republication of the article by Rolling Stone and Wenner Media. Rolling Stone could appeal the verdict.
The award is also a rather pointed response to the closing argument from the defense. After hearing that Eramo struggled with suicidal thoughts, complications from a double mastectomy that took place just as the article went to press, and professional setbacks after the publication of the article, the Rolling Stone attorney then argued that the initial verdict was punishment enough, calling it “tough medicine.” He specifically asked the jury not to award a large sum as a message to the magazine and the media at large. Maybe that worked to take the edge off the award — Eramo asked for $7.5 million — but clearly the jury didn’t buy the idea that a verdict alone would teach the defendants a lesson.
That’s exactly what this is, of course, especially directed at Rolling Stone specifically. It’s also a harbinger of things to come. Eramo had to prove actual malice in the defamation suit thanks to a curious and almost-certainly mistaken ruling that she was a “public person” by the nature of her position at UVA. If Rolling Stone and Erdely appeal this verdict on the basis of “actual malice,” it’s certainly possible that an appeals court will decide that Eramo wasn’t a “public person” in the first place. That certainly won’t be the case with others defamed in this poisonous fabulism, such as the fraternity members whose house was attacked, or the friends of “Jackie” who got painted as uncaring airheads who valued their social position more than their friend. Subsequent juries unencumbered by the need to check the box on “actual malice” are likely to send the same message to Rolling Stone, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, and anyone who hires her down the road.
Will the media in general take a lesson from this? To a large extent, it’s not really applicable. Most media outlets don’t run these kinds of stories, not just because of the potential liabilities but also because they’re not generally oriented to activist “journalism” of this stripe. Rolling Stone was a particularly easy mark for “Jackie” and Erdely to publish half-baked lies dressed up in the outrage du jour. When most media outlets run hit pieces, they run them with considerably better targeting, aiming them at politicians they dislike rather than obscure college students and university administrators. Still, this is certainly going to reduce the market for activist “journalism” considerably for those media outlets who do tend to use that kind of material; their insurers will insist on it, and their readers are less likely to fall for it after this anyway.