University of Virginia Dean of Students Nicole Eramo put Rolling Stone on trial for libeling her in its infamous, demonstrably false article about a gang rape on campus. And she won.
On Friday afternoon, a jury determined that Rolling Stone, publisher Jann Wenner, and author Sabrina Rubin Erdely were responsible for defamation, with actual malice, according to The Washington Post.
Earlier, a judge had ruled that Eramo—who was wrongly portrayed as indifferent to sexual assault victims in the article—should be considered a public person, which meant she had to prove actual malice on the part of Rolling Stone, not just recklessness. Many thought this higher standard was too difficult to meet, but as I noted in my preview of the case, Eramo's argument was much more compelling than people understood—in large part because the magazine failed to retract the article for months even though it knew Jackie's account was false.
As I wrote then, "essentially, Eramo has claimed that Rolling Stone continued to expose new readers to false information about the dean, long after its editors admitted to realizing the story was false."
Rolling Stone and its publisher tried to argue that they made an innocent mistake: they trusted Jackie, a woman wholly committed to deceiving them. During the trial, Wenner went as far as to suggest that the article was accurate, aside from Jackie's account—as if the two were capable of being separated. He even said that he disagreed with the editor's decision to retract it, which was done only after the Columbia University School of Journalism released a scathing report about Rolling Stone's failings.
Erdely took the stand as well, emphasizing the elaborate pains Jackie took to prop up her lies. Jackie even brought Erdely to the fraternity in question and faked an episode of PTSD in front of her.
Of course, Jackie's lie would have been exposed had Erdely or Rolling Stone's editors done one of two things: press her for the real name of her attacker, or verify that friends Ryan Duffin, Alex Stone, and Kathryn Hendley had actually said the things attributed to them by Jackie. Indeed, Ryan and Alex could have clued Erdely in to Jackie's weird catfishing scheme, and Kathryn could have related an illustrative anecdote: Jackie faking a terminal illness and spread a false rumor that Kathryn had contracted syphilis.
Eramo's suit asked for $7.5 million in damages, though she can ask for more now that the verdict has been reached. It's not a large enough sum of money to destroy Rolling Stone, though the magazine's pride is no doubt wounded. Rolling Stone sent me this statement:
For almost 50 years, Rolling Stone has aimed to produce journalism with the highest reporting and ethical standards, and with a strong humanistic point of view. When we published 'A Rape on Campus' in 2014, we were attempting to tackle the very serious and complex topic of sexual assault on college campuses, a subject that is more relevant today than ever. In our desire to present this complicated issue from the perspective of a survivor, we overlooked reporting paths and made journalistic mistakes that we are committed to never making again. We deeply regret these missteps and sincerely apologize to anyone hurt by them, including Ms. Eramo. It is our deep hope that our failings do not deflect from the pervasive issues discussed in the piece, and that reporting on sexual assault cases ultimately results in campus policies that better protect our students. We will continue to publish stories that shine a light on the defining social, political and cultural issues of our times, and we will continue to seek the truth in every story we publish.
You might recall that I was among the first journalists to scrutinize the article, days after it first appeared online. (My post on the subject cited Richard Bradley, whose criticisms had appeared even earlier.) It's been quite a journey from then to now—remember this? I didn't—but my point-of-view has always remained the same: the campus sexual assault issue is a complicated problem made more incomprehensible by bad statistics, junk science, and activist reporting coming from all sorts of ideological directions.
If we're going to make college a safer environment—for both victims of sexual assault, and the wrongfully accused and maligned—the truth has got to matter more than the story.