In the $7.5 million Rolling Stone defamation trial, jurors heard yesterday from Sean Woods, the editor who worked with reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely on the story about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia.
In emails exchanged during the editing process, Erdely and Woods discussed how key details of the story had just a single source — “Jackie,” the student who said she was brutally gang-raped by seven men atop shards of broken glass at a fraternity.
Nonetheless, portions of the article attributable only to Jackie seemed to suggest Erdely had multiple sources backing some of those important details.
“It misled readers, didn’t it?” asked Libby Locke, the lawyer representing former Dean Nicole Eramo, who says the article defamed her and damaged her reputation.
“It did,” Woods answered. He also admitted that he had inaccurately told the Washington Post that Rolling Stone knew the identities of the alleged rapists. “I stepped over the line,” he said. “It was a big mistake on my part.”
Eramo says the Rolling Stone cast her as “the chief villain” and an embodiment of “the University’s alleged institutional indifference to rape.” Under Locke’s prodding yesterday, Woods seemed to admit that the article had harmed Eramo.
“I’m sorry if I hurt you,” Woods said to Eramo, but Locke seemed incredulous that the apology was conditional.
“If? Did you hurt her or not? … Do you think Ms. Eramo was hurt by this story?” she responded.
“I do,” Woods said. “I think she is a public figure and subject to criticism.”
Woods told the court that his intention wasn’t to cause harm, and that the journalists involved had put too much faith in Jackie. “I don’t think I fully understood the scope of the manipulation,” he said.
Woods suggested Eramo wasn’t the only one hurt by the story. He, himself, offered to resign from Rolling Stone over the story. Will Dana, a managing editor, also lost his job over the story.
“I think all of our reputations were trashed. It was a terrible blow,” Woods said, adding that the collapse of the story “broke a lot of us.”
Sara Surface, a friend of Jackie’s, also testified yesterday, telling the court Erdely interviewed her but “disregarded me because I didn’t fit the narrative” about Eramo.
As an advocate in a sexual-assault prevention group, Surface frequently referred women who had suffered abuse to Eramo. “If [Erdely] had listened to my personal experiences and my feelings, maybe she wouldn’t be getting sued right now,” Surface testified. Instead, Erdely considered Surface a “covert mouthpiece for the administration,” according to an email that emerged during the discovery process.
As the trail continues today, the court will hear from two other former Rolling Stone employees.
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.