Rolling Stone reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely and Rolling Stone magazine smeared a fraternity at the University of Virginia with a gang rape story that quickly fell apart when inconsistencies in the report were investigated. Last Friday, they got their comeuppance when a federal jury held that Erdely, publisher Jann Wenner and the magazine were guilty of defamation.
There was a way for Rolling Stone to have avoided the guilty verdict, which could end up being rather expensive: report the story before running it. But the story was a juicy one about gang rape on a preppy college campus that fit all sorts of stereotypes. It was just too good to verify. The story was based almost entirely by what we now know to have been a fabrication by "Jackie," who claimed she had been gang raped in a frat house.
The lawsuit was filed by former U-Va dean Nicole Eramo, who was portrayed in the article as indifferent to rape accusations. As Reason's Robby Soave points out, a judge ruled that Ms. Eramo was a public figure, making the bar for defamation higher. She had to prove actual malice. She made that high bar. Soave writes:
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.
Mollie Hemingway does a must-read debunking of the statement Rolling Stone sent out after the verdict ("Rolling Stone Can Take Their Defamation Statement and Shove It"). Mollie hilariously dissects and eviscerates each of the claims Rolling Stone puts forward in the statement (including the one about how the magazine has "aimed to produce journalism with the highest reporting and ethical standards, and with a strong humanistic point of view." "Oh, please," says Mollie)
But here is the crux of the matter:
When Rolling Stone published “A Rape on Campus” in 2014, it was attempting to drive a sketchy narrative for progressive political results. That’s what Sabrina Erdely has done with many of her pieces over her career. That’s why Rolling Stone hired her. They took a very serious issue of how the sexual revolution has led to all sorts of abuses on college campuses and decided instead to focus on the dubious “rape culture” message pushed in recent years by progressive activists. Abuses on college campuses — and especially off college campuses — are real, but the recent “rape culture” craze has led to attacks on the civil liberties of men and created a panic built on emotion more than reality.
. . .
Erdely smeared someone and failed to do obvious due diligence with her sources. At every step of the fact-checking process, the magazine failed. The publication didn’t just fail to do its job, its staff didn’t seem to want to, putting a blockbuster story over basic journalism practices.
One key factor in the verdict, according to the jury, was the magazine’s delayed retraction and its decision to keep the article online with an editor’s note.
Further, this was not some one-off mistake but part of a pattern of the politically driven narrative journalism genre the magazine has paid Erdely and countless other reporters to do for decades.
Reporters have always been liberal but in recent years they have been willing to overlook facts that conflict with their worldview.
Glad the dean called Rolling Stone on this.