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Analysis: Rolling Stone Defamation Verdict

Analysis: Rolling Stone Defamation Verdict

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.]


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The problem with people like Erdely is that she will never see she was wrong. She will never accept responsibility for her actions and the impact her actions has had on others because she is convinced she is right and everyone else is wrong.

Rolling Stone has to be forced to pay a HUGE price for this because these organisations only understand things when it comes with a big price tag! A slap on the hand is meaningless to them while a huge multi-million dollar payout will focus their mind on ensuring the stick to tacts and lot publish lies as if it is the truth.

    assemblerhead in reply to mailman. | November 8, 2016 at 9:15 am


    Unless the owners of “Rolling Stone” are forced into Chapter 7, no changes will be made.

    Someone might want to let the liability insurance company know that big payouts are going to be the new common/frequent. Suspect the premium might start rising.

    ( Personal Opinion )
    Erdely has personal/mental issues that she is not willing to deal with. No change predicted.

    JohnC in reply to mailman. | November 8, 2016 at 9:29 am

    Erdely is a SJW zealot. She doesn’t just think what she’s doing is right; she believes it is right. She has faith in her cause. Fighting ‘rape culture’ has become her religion. She knows is out there, stalking and maiming helpless women. If only people could see it. She will find the evidence! She will make everyone see! Then everyone will praise her and the nobility of her work! Then she will be a hero!

    Or, maybe she’s just an asshole.
    One or the other.

      MattMusson in reply to JohnC. | November 8, 2016 at 9:42 am

      The SJW ‘journalist’ says – “If it did not happen in this case, it is happening somewhere else. So, making of details here is really just reporting the truth. But, not this truth.”

    casualobserver in reply to mailman. | November 8, 2016 at 9:33 am

    The judgement will be seen as political. A right wing effort. Sympathetic SJW types in the public and the media will probably call it an attack on women, or something, using twisted logic. Any punative damages may make the spin machines more hyperactive.

    But isn’t the reoccurring theme of life in the Era of Obama ?

    Nobody listens.

    As a matter of a fact most commenters will skip reading the comments and just go an post their own ideas, most especially if they have something snarky to say.

I wonder what causes people such as Erdely to assume these rolls as judge, jury and executioner in scenario’s that are obviously contrived. I agree with the ‘mailman’ that the large payout will catch the attention of the ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine, at least if they want to stay both in business and insured. I think it’s possible that financial suffering will only solidify the mindset of Erdely. Her agenda isn’t the same as that of the magazine.

    Fremen warrior: And his word shall carry death eternal to those who stand against the righteous.

    The lack of real evidence won’t stop the righteous.

    It’s all part of the Fake but Accurate regime.

Hmmmm. I wonder if Trump can get actual campaign costs when he sues the NYT.

He can wind up owning the newspaper.

    murkyv in reply to RodFC. | November 8, 2016 at 2:55 pm

    Or CNN.

    Donna Brazile doubled down this AM on a radio interview saying she doesn’t regret feeding Hillary questions for the debates, she said the only thing she would do different would to be to learn more about cyber-security.

Malice. Now say it three million times….

“reporting on sexual assault cases ultimately results in campus policies that better protect our students.”

BUT isn’t assuming that “reporting” is supposed to accomplish anything beyond informing the reader an admission that one is writing propaganda (or at least opinion) as distinguished from actual reporting? At best such “reporting” will contain not the whole truth but only those parts of the truth that advance the social agenda. Even if the “reporting” were to limit itself to only the truth.

Further, “better protect our students” is at best ambiguous. Is your aim to “protect students” against sexual assault or against false accusations of sexual assault? And if it’s just the former, can you even admit that the latter can in some cases be more injurious than the former? Or is the focus on your goal so single-minded that you see no reason to care about any collateral damage you may cause (let alone the quality of what you publish)?

There surely are many questions here, even before one gets to the high bar of proving malicious intent.

“…and that reporting on sexual assault cases ultimately results in campus policies that better protect our students.”

It’s become blindingly clear that the phrase “better protect our students” only applies to students with ovaries. Those without ovary privilege must be persecuted.

I graduated from UCSB in the mid 80s. I recall getting an anonymous survey from the wymyn’s center about date rape. Basically it just assumed I was a rapist, and they wanted to know when I started raping women, how often I rape women, do I use drugs to rape women, blah blah blah.

I said to myself, “I’m not answering this garbage” and threw it in the trash.

About a month later I got a follow up letter, addressed to me by name, complaining they hadn’t received my anonymous survey response.

No, I’m not making any of this up. Even then I didn’t dream of how bad it would get. But I should have.

Has anybody else seen the Rolling Stone, lately? I mysteriously got a subscription coming my house. I thought it was my guitar-playing kid that ordered it, but no.

A quick scan of the titles showed some very politically-motivated articles. There is at least one per month.

I wondered if a magazine subscription would be considered cheap advertising, if the advertiser had placement of one article per month. The cost would every doable, at the expense of the magazine’s integrity, but very little of our media has that, any more.

I recently read an update on the George Soros-funded deliberate attack on all of our institutions, including influence on the issues and voter Id. The Rolling Stone, which is clearly shrinking in the same manner as Parade magazine, would be a natural avenue for propaganda.

    Rolling Stone magazine is all leftist propaganda, all the time. Some music news is thrown in with it.

    Even their “top 100” lists are political.

    That rag is in the same slimy league as the NY Times.

The problem with this case is that it had the wrong plaintiff.

As bad as what Rolling Stone and Erdly did, the victim of their smear was the completely innocent and wrongly smeared fraternity members, who were labeled racist, had their house firebombed, and to this day still suffer from sanctions imposed by the false rape accusation.

Eramo, by contrast, is a typical enabling SJW administrator who is partly responsible for the whole mess by encouraging Jackie’s delusions when Jackie wasn’t raped.

I am a former professional journalist whose politics have ranged from centrist left (think Bill Clinton minus the hijinks) to firmly disgusted and independent today. If I’d been on the jury, Nicole Eramo would’ve gotten more than she asked for, if the law governing damages allowed it.