At left, a picture of University of Virginia Associate Dean Nicole Eramo from the Cavalier Daily; at right, the photo illustration that appeared in Rolling Stone. (Images from lawsuit)

The heart of the 76-page complaint against Rolling Stone magazine filed yesterday by University of Virginia Associate Dean Nicole Eramo addresses claims made in a now-retracted Nov. 19, 2014, story titled “A Rape on Campus.” The piece, which sustained a protracted debunking from media critics and ultimately a top-to-bottom review by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, left the impression that U-Va., where Eramo serves as the head of the sexual misconduct board, mishandled the case of Jackie, a freshman who alleged that she’d suffered a horrific gang rape at a fraternity house in September 2012.

Author Sabrina Rubin Erdely and Rolling Stone “had serious doubts about the truth of the disparaging claims they planned to make about Dean Eramo,” notes the complaint, “but intentionally violated commonly accepted journalistic norms and consciously failed to investigate sources and information that they believed would have revealed the falsity of the charges they leveled.” The story did include some positive comments about Eramo as well.

Yet the complaint goes beyond text. It argues that Rolling Stone hired “high-profile illustrator” John Ritter to concoct a certain depiction of Eramo: “Rolling Stone retained Ritter Illustrations with the specific intent to portray Dean Eramo in a highly negative manner,” reads the document. The photo-illustration is on the right at the top of this post; it relies on a photograph of Eramo from the Cavalier Daily that depicted Eramo speaking to a group of students, and it shows Eramo at her desk while demonstrators hold signs outside her window and a woman sits in front of her.

The complaint lays out all the ways in which the art allegedly depicts Eramo as a “villain”:

Rolling Stone caused Ritter to alter the image of Dean Eramo’s hand by lightening portions of the interior of her thumb, by darkening the pen she is holding, and by placing a fake desk at the bottom of her hand to hide a portion of the pen, all in an effort to make it appear as though Dean Eramo was giving a “thumbs up” while the victim sits crying in front of her. Rolling Stone also caused Ritter to lighten the whites around Dean Eramo’s eyes to depict her expression as “wild-eyed” in the image. Rolling Stone also intentionally caused Ritter to edit out of the image Dean Eramo’ s right hand, which is making a welcoming gesture in the original photo, to further emphasize their false narrative that Dean Eramo was unsupportive of Jackie.

That’s a lot of illustration-orchestration!

Though the Erik Wemple Blog gets queasy when contemplating anything approaching a defense of Erdely’s story, this set of accusations appears a bit far-fetched. The original Erdely story, after all, clearly identifies the piece as an illustration, and upon reading it for the first time, we hardly concluded that Eramo was “wild-eyed.” The positioning of Eramo’s thumb does indeed appear odd in the illustration, but not necessarily in a defamatory kind of odd.

Theodore J. Boutrous Jr. of the law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP took a look at this argument and wrote to the Erik Wemple Blog, “That’s a very creative theory but it seems like a real stretch under the law.”

Enough pooh-poohing! Consider that the piece of art sits alongside a false and retracted narrative that portrayed an administrative process helmed by Eramo as ineffective. “In libel law, courts must consider the article as a whole when considering if it conveys a defamatory meaning,” writes University of Florida Professor Clay Calvert. “In this case, the manipulated illustration is part of the article. Linking a false image portraying Eramo as callous, cold-hearted and uncaring with the accompanying negative text could clearly affect how a reasonable reader interprets the words of the article, priming the reader to take away a negative meaning.”