Rolling Stone and Reporter Found Liable for $3 Million in Defamation Suit
Last Friday, in the civil suit regarding the Sabrina Erdely story about an alleged gang rape at UVA—the attention-getting piece that portrayed “Jackie” as victim extraordinaire—the periodical Rolling Stone and journalist Sabrina Erdely were found guilty of defamation with actual malice:
A 10-person jury in Richmond, Va., found that Rolling Stone defamed a university administrator who was in charge of handling student complaints of sexual misconduct at the school…
In a lawsuit filed last year, then-UVA associate dean of students Nicole Eramo alleged that the article and interviews Ms. Erdely gave about her reporting cast the administrator as the callous villain of its tale and falsely asserted that she discouraged a student identified only as “Jackie” from taking her rape allegations to the police.
Key to the verdict against Rolling Stone itself was its delayed decision to retract the story, according to the jury’s verdict form.
The jury then proceeded to the damage phase of the trial. Eramo, who had been moved by UVA from her deanship to an administrative job she reported enjoying much less, said that as a result of the article she had contemplated suicide at one point, suffered health complications, and become the target of a bullying campaign. She had asked for $7.5 million in damages, and the jury awarded her a total of $3 million: $2 million from Erdely and $1 million from Rolling Stone.
That may sound like a significant amount of money, but insurance will most likely be covering it:
…In the case of Rolling Stone, its parent company Wenner Media, is reported to have an undisclosed amount of media liability insurance to cover any damages related to the trial.
Still, at least one analyst cited in this report by the Wall Street Journal, says that if costs related to this lawsuit and other pending lawsuits exceed $50 million, Wenner Media may not be able to fund it with existing resources.
But even though the damages awarded in this case can easily be handled by insurance, that might not be the end of it for Rolling Stone:
Rolling Stone also faces a $25 million lawsuit from Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity where Jackie claimed her assault took place. That case is schedule[d] to go to trial late next year.
It’s difficult to say what lessons Rolling Stone has learned from all of this. Here’s a statement from Rolling Stone after the verdict was handed down last week, but before the damages were set:
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.
Well, Rolling Stone, I have a suggestion to make. If you would like your reporting to result in campus policies that better protect students, it would help to report the facts rather than lies.
Erdely herself appears to have made a sort of cottage industry of writing sensational articles about rape, and several of her previous pieces have been subsequently looked at with a more skeptical eye than before, in light of the UVA brouhaha. But these articles of Erdely’s were not merely about rape; her recurrent leitmotif was that the victims’ reports of rape were ignored or minimized by the relevant institutions in attempts at coverup. Erdely’s “Jackie” story fit the pattern, with its allegations against UVA administrator Eramo:
Sabrina Rubin Erdely is trying to build a narrative. The narrative, really, is not as much about rape qua rape. The narrative is that rape is widely ignored and/or condoned by people in authority within institutions that she dislikes (frats, the military, churches). Reporting that a rape has occurred is upsetting but not surprising to people – so what makes these stories actual news stories is that they in each instance make the sensational claim that the rape was reported to people in positions of authority who either ignored the accusation or who actually punished the victim for reporting it.
Jonathan Turley reminds us that Rolling Stone kept Erdely on its rolls even after it became clear that her story failed to meet journalistic standards. And, speaking of “campus policies that better protect our students,” Turley also mentions some institutional issues at UVA:
The concern is that the University of Virginia has not made any substantial changes in guaranteeing greater due process rights for students or houses accused in such controversies. It has did not take any actions, or even investigated, “Jackie.” One can understand the desire not to discourage other victims of college assaults, a very serious problem for all universities and colleges. However, the lack of meaningful protections for the accused house and (by extension) students remains a concern.
It is to be hoped that the outcome of these lawsuits would be to cause reporters and the press to think twice before going ahead with stories that seem just too good to be fact-checked. Further monetary damages could serve to drive home that message. But the guilty verdict itself, and the finding of actual malice, certainly has damaged Rolling Stone’s and Erdely’s reputations.
[Neo-neocon is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.]