The $7.5 million lawsuit against Rolling Stone over its discredited story about a brutal gang rape at a US college frat house opened this week and proceedings have been nothing short of explosive.
The suit has been brought by University of Virginia’s Associate Dean of Students, Nicole Eramo, who says the magazine’s November 19, 2014 cover story, “A Rape on Campus,” damaged her career and her health.
The article by reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely, who is named as a co-defendant, described in alarming detail the sexual assault of a student called “Jackie” by seven men at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house in September 2012.
Ms. Eramo claims Ms. Erdely cast her as the “chief villain” who sought to protect the school by discouraging Jackie from reporting her alleged assault to police.
A subsequent police investigation found no evidence to back up Jackie’s claims and scrutiny by other media organizations, in particular The Washington Post, uncovered serious inconsistencies and gaping holes in her narrative.
Ms. Eramo wept in court on Tuesday as she described the backlash against her on campus after the story was published as immediate and overwhelming, sparking protests and even death threats.
She received hundreds of emails and letters calling her everything from a “wretched rape apologist” to a “disgusting, worthless piece of trash.”
“It just seemed to be going completely viral, and I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “I felt alone and scared.”
Rolling Stone lawyer Scott Sexton acknowledged during his opening statement that the magazine made reporting mistakes but stressed that Ms. Eramo must prove that the magazine acted with “actual malice,” meaning it knew what it was writing about the dean was false or at least should have known it wasn’t true.
Mr. Sexton said the magazine’s editors and the employee who fact-checked the article all believed Jackie was credible.“We do believe that something bad happened to Jackie,” he told the court. But “we have no idea what it was.”
Ms. Erdely was asked to take the stand for the first time on Thursday and was grilled about her failure to attempt to corroborate Jackie’s account.“It wasn’t a mistake to rely on someone who was so emotionally fragile,” she told the court while choking back tears. “It was a mistake to rely on someone whose intent was to deceive me.”
On Wednesday, Ms. Eramo’s attorneys moved to admit as evidence a video of Ms. Erdely discussing an article about folk singer Michelle Shocked that earned her a college journalism award from Rolling Stone.
In the video, Ms. Erdely acknowledged that “just about everything in the story was wrong.”
She stated that she had missed most of the news conference where Ms. Shocked spoke and then “borrowed whatever facts” she could find in media publications at the time to write the article.
Ms. Eramo’s legal team argues the video reflects “the same kind of attribution problems” that occurred in “A Rape on Campus.”
The bid came just days after a federal judge granted an emergency motion from Rolling Stone barring Ms. Eramo from using deposition videos that she leaked to a major television network.
The magazine claimed that Ms. Eramo’s attorneys had violated a protective order when they gave ABC’s news program “20/20” confidential deposition videos for a broadcast scheduled to air last Friday night — three days before the start of the trial.
The video shows Ms. Erdely sobbing as she discusses mistakes she made in reporting Jackie’s account and her reaction to learning it was founded on an untrue story.
The motion called Ms. Eramo’s actions “improper” and argued that the release of the videos could taint the jury pool.
In her second day on the stand, Ms. Eramo told the court Ms. Erdely portrayed her as indifferent Jackie’s assault and that the magazine’s apologies for its journalistic failures didn’t go far enough.
Elizabeth McNamara, a lawyer for Rolling Stone, noted that the magazine issued an apology in December 2014 and another one the following April when it officially retracted the article. She said that apology was specifically extended to school administrators.
Ms. Eramo told the courtroom she took issue with those apologies.
Rolling Stone has said that while Jackie’s story may not have held up to scrutiny, it believes its reporting about Eramo was fair and accurate.
“This doesn’t seem like a sincere apology to me given that I had been told over and over again by the magazine that it stands by its statements with regards to me,” Ms. Eramo told the court.
When Ms. McNamara asked Ms. Eramo why she and the university didn’t investigate multiple rape allegations made by Jackie, the dean replied it was best for police to investigate but that the student had refused to co-operate with detectives. Ms. Eramo contends that Ms. Erdely was aware that she had repeatedly urged Jackie to file a police report but deliberately left the information out of the article because it jarred with her assertion that the university failed to investigate the alleged attack.
They also claim that positive statements about the dean in Ms. Erdely’s notes didn’t make it into the finished piece, citing quotes from survivors’ advocates on campus, including one calling Ms. Eramo “my favorite human being on campus”.
In response, Rolling Stone’s lawyers claim Ms. Eramo was found by federal investigators to have contributed to the “hostile environment” towards survivors on campus.
“The fact remains that under Dean Eramo’s tenure as Chair of the Sexual Misconduct Board, no one was expelled for sexual assault, while over 100 students were forced to leave UVA for honour code violations,” the magazine said in a statement that has been tendered to court.
Rolling Stone also disputes Ms. Eramo’s claim that the story damaged her career, pointing out that she was moved to a new position within the administration department and even given a raise.
The trial, which began on Monday, is expected to last about 12 days.
This article was originally published on news.com.au