First: A resounding November 2014 Rolling Stone article about an alleged 2012 gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity in which a student identified only as “Jackie” experiences an unfathomable trauma.
Second: Immediate impact, as U-Va. President Teresa Sullivan suspends fraternities and the campus convulses.
Third: Doubt. Investigations by The Washington Post and other find holes in the story; Rolling Stone issues butt-covering statements and its editors cower.
Fourth: The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism issues a study on the Rolling Stone disaster; the magazine retracts the story.
Fifth: A federal jury finds Friday that the author of the story, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, is liable for defamation with actual malice against the central U-Va. administrator in the story, Nicole Eramo. The magazine and its parent company are also found liable. The verdict came down after more than two weeks of trial and about three days of jury deliberations.
And justice is served. As this blog argued shortly after the story surfaced, this was a case of genuine media bias. Not, mind you, the sort of alleged media bias — lefty journos polluting the mainstream media — that we so often hear about. The bias here was a reporter seeking the most explosive story possible and blowing through all the warning signs that it wasn’t true. In a Slate podcast, Erdely discussed her reporting process. “First I looked around at a number of different campuses,” she said. “It took me a while to figure out where I wanted to focus on. But when I finally decided on the University of Virginia — one of the compelling reasons that made me focus on the University of Virginia was when I found Jackie. I made contact with a student activist at the school who told me a lot about the culture of the school — that was one of the important things, sort of criteria that I wanted when I was looking for the right school to focus on.”
En route to this elaborate gang-rape scene — which, of course, turned out to have been false — Erdely passed up more routine instances of sexual assault on other campuses, including Yale University, as we reported in April 2015. This striving to find the most explosive possible scenario helps to contextualize all the failings highlighted in the oh-so-comprehensive Columbia report on Rolling Stone’s story: The failure to contact the alleged assailants; the failure to corroborate the account with as many people as possible; the worries that if they pushed to hard to confirm the account, “Jackie” would withdraw from the whole thing.
The defamation trial in a Charlottesville federal court appears to have administered a slow-motion rollout of all the depravities behind Rolling Stone’s execution. Lawyers for Erdely cited the Columbia report and said this was “a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable.” Alongside Jackie’s allegations, Eramo, who handled sexual assault cases at the university, is depicted as being ineffective.
That the jury ruled in favor of plaintiff Eramo is notable considering the height of the evidentiary bar placed before it. Judge Glen E. Conrad had ruled that Eramo was, for the purposes of this litigation, a limited-purpose public figure — meaning that her lawyers had to prove that Rolling Stone acted with malice in pursuing its story. In that ruling, Conrad inventoried a set of conditions that would meet that standard. One of them: “evidence that a defendant conceived a story line in advance of an investigation and then consciously set out to make the evidence conform to the preconceived story is evidence of actual malice, and may often prove to be quite powerful evidence.” Bingo.