Verdict: Rolling Stone, reporter defamed UVA administrator

A jury has decided that Rolling Stone magazine and author Sabrina Rubin Erdely defamed UVA administrator Nicole Eramo with their 2014 story “A Rape on Campus.” From the Washington Post:

The 10 member jury concluded that the Rolling Stone journalist was responsible for defamation, with actual malice, in the case brought by Nicole Eramo, a U-Va. administrator who oversaw sexual violence cases at the time of the article’s publication. The jury also found the magazine and its publisher responsible for defaming Eramo…

Eramo’s lawyers presented evidence that Erdely had a predetermined notion of what her story would be, discussing the concept of the story that became “A Rape on Campus” well ahead of her reporting, including a note describing how college administrations can be “indifferent” to rape survivors.

Not only did the story line seem pre-arranged, Erdely and Rolling Stone didn’t do nearly enough to fact check what “Jackie” was telling them. For instance, the magazine never got the name of the alleged gang-rape organizer and so was not able to investigate and discover that Haven Monahan did not exist. A defense lawyer for Rolling Stone named Scott Sexton [no relation] argued that the magazine and the author had themselves been the victim of a hoax. From the Post:

Sexton said that in effect Erdely and Rolling Stone had fallen victim to what he called at points a “hoax,” a “fraud,” and a “perfect storm.”

The magazine’s editorial staff was no match for Jackie, Sexton said, noting that the magazine was not sure what exactly had happened to her, but admitted “she deceived us and we do know it was purposeful.”

“This young woman was very good at telling this story,” Sexton said. “Dean Eramo believed her. . . .Yet we are the ones being tried, in a sense, for having believed her.”

Obviously the jury didn’t buy it. The job of a magazine presenting news is to put effort into verifying the facts before trumpeting whatever story that crosses their transom. That’s different from the job of an administrator asked to be a point of contact and support for university students who claim to be rape victims. Rolling Stone released a statement about the verdict:

This comes awfully close to saying the story was “fake but accurate.”

Had the Rolling Stone story not been so splashy it would not have received the attention it did. But it wasn’t just the splashy parts—the gang-rape, the victim being smashed through a glass table—that were false. UVA also suggested that Eramo didn’t really help “Jackie” when, in fact, she had tried to put the young woman in contact with police in hopes that an investigation would lead to the arrest and prosecution of the rapists. It was Jackie who wasn’t interested in an investigation and, of course, we now know why: She was lying.

On that point, now that the jury has decided Rolling Stone and author Erdely are guilty of defamation, perhaps the rest of the media will stop shielding “Jackie’s” identity as if she is a rape victim rather than a liar who was looking for attention from a male classmate.

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