This month, the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism issued a widely read report citing a number of lapses in Rolling Stone’s execution of “A Rape on Campus,” the deeply flawed and ultimately retracted story about sexual assault at the University of Virginia. Upon the report’s release, the story’s author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely issued a mea culpa that read in part:
I want to offer my deepest apologies: to Rolling Stone’s readers, to my Rolling Stone editors and colleagues, to the U.V.A. community, and to any victims of sexual assault who may feel fearful as a result of my article.
That wasn’t specific enough for Nicole Eramo, the associate dean of students at U-Va. whose actions came under scrutiny in Erdely’s story. In an open letter to Rolling Stone issued today, Eramo hammers the magazine and asserts that “A Rape on Campus” “deeply damaged me both personally and professionally.” In February, writes Eramo, attorneys for Rolling Stone “flatly” indicated that the magazine “stood by” those portions of the story relating to Eramo and her actions handling sexual assault complaints. The story’s treatment of Eramo was “fair,” said those attorneys, according to the Eramo letter.
Oh, how Eramo disagrees.
The centerpiece of the Rolling Stone story related to an alleged September 2012 gang rape at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house suffered by Jackie, a U-Va. freshman at the time. A subsequent investigation by the Charlottesville police department turned up no evidence of such an episode, nor of other sexual assaults alleged by Jackie in Erdely’s story.
“A Rape on Campus,” however, provides detail on how Eramo approached Jackie and her stories of trauma. The piece noted that Eramo was “beloved” by survivors of sexual assault and that the associate dean carefully laid out a series of options for Jackie when she detailed her alleged gang rape: “If Dean Eramo was surprised at Jackie’s story of gang rape, it didn’t show. A short woman with curly dark hair and a no-nonsense demeanor, Eramo surely has among the most difficult jobs at UVA,” wrote Erdely.
In May 2014, reported Erdely, Jackie sat in Eramo’s office and told her of two additional rape allegations involving the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. Rolling Stone, though it wasn’t in the room for the meeting, said this about how things played out: “As Jackie wrapped up her story, she was disappointed by Eramo’s nonreaction. She’d expected shock, disgust, horror.” Again, the police found nothing to support those rape allegations.
In the article and related media appearances, Rolling Stone and Mrs. Erdely stated that I discouraged Jackie from reporting or discussing her alleged assault, that Jackie suffered “abuse” at my hands when she tried to hold the perpetrators accountable, that I called UVA “the rape school,” that I did not “support” Jackie, that I did “nothing” in response to Jackie’s allegations and did not report them to the police, and that I sought to “suppress” Jackie’s alleged sexual assault. Rolling Stone celebrated these malicious and false allegations by accompanying the article with a cartoonish picture of me doctored to appear as though I was smiling and giving a “thumbs up” to a crying victim sitting in my office, while angry protestors marched outside with signs like “Stop Victim Blaming.”
The “true facts,” counters Eramo, paint an opposite picture — that of her and the university encouraging Jackie to take her case to the authorities. “I arranged for Jackie to meet with detectives almost immediately,” notes Eramo’s letter. In fact, she notes, Jackie did meet with police twice in spring 2014 with Eramo’s encouragement, though Jackie chose not to cooperate with a criminal investigation.
Media criticism is part of Eramo’s indictment: “These are all things that Rolling Stone would have figured out if its reporters, editors and fact checkers had not made a calculated decision not to contact sources who would have contradicted Rolling Stone’s preconceived story line,” she writes.
As for the damage Eramo has sustained, she writes of e-mails that she has received “expressing hope that I be killed or raped, or commenting that they hoped that I had a daughter so that she could be raped.” Also, Eramo writes that during the investigation of the magazine’s bogus reporting, the university removed Eramo from contact with students she’d been counseling. They had to “start over” with another administrator, she claims.
As for the remedies that Rolling Stone has taken — commissioning the Columbia report; issuing an apology; retracting the story — Eramo declares, “These steps are not good enough.”
The open letter is seeded with language that might well drop neatly into a defamation claim against Rolling Stone — it’s heavy on the damages and the malicious and false nature of the article. All of which are really easy to document. Yet Libby Locke, counsel for Eramo, tells the Erik Wemple Blog, “Dean Eramo is not prepared to comment about possible litigation at this point in time.” Locke’s firm, Clare Locke LLP, specializes in defamation and represents former Pennsylvania State University president Graham Spanier in a case against former FBI director Louis Freeh over allegations in the Freeh report on the Sandusky case.
Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity so thoroughly injured in the story, has signaled that it is moving ahead with a case against the magazine.
On one level, there are indeed some positive comments about Eramo in the Erdely piece. Erdely does point out that the survivors “laud” Eramo “as their best advocate and den mother.” It also notes that Eramo put Jackie in touch with supportive figures on campus.
Come on, though. The sum total of the story is that U-Va. essentially sat on these awful claims. Not only does the story leave that impression, but Erdely restated the point in her post-publication press tour. For instance, she told The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi: “As I’ve already told you, the gang-rape scene that leads the story is the alarming account that Jackie — a person whom I found to be credible — told to me, told her friends, and importantly, what she told the UVA administration, which chose not to act on her allegations in any way — i.e., the overarching point of the article. THAT is the story: the culture that greeted her and so many other UVA women I interviewed, who came forward with allegations, only to be met with indifference.”
Watch for that statement to surface again, in a court document.
A request for comment from Rolling Stone has been made.
Text of letter: