CHARLOTTESVILLE — An attorney for Rolling Stone magazine argued Wednesday that the University of Virginia administrator who alleges that the publication defamed her and destroyed her career actually advanced professionally and received praise and support from her colleagues — including the school’s president — in the wake of a now-retracted story about rapes on campus.
Associate Dean Nicole Eramo alleges that Rolling Stone improperly portrayed her as a callous administrator who suppressed information about sexual assaults at U-Va. and who acted indifferently when learning of an alleged gang rape at a fraternity, despite her years of compassionate work with victims. Rolling Stone countered in court that federal authorities found that Eramo contributed to a “hostile environment” for sexual-assault victims at U-Va. and said that her supervisors later gave her a raise.
Wednesday marked the second day Eramo, who is suing the magazine and the article’s author for alleged defamation, took the stand. A day after Eramo tearfully recounted how the article had dismantled her life’s work, Elizabeth McNamara, an attorney for Rolling Stone, attempted to paint a nuanced portrait of the article and the way reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely portrayed Eramo. The magazine also issued a statement discounting the alleged effects the article had on Eramo’s life.
“A multi-year review of sexual violence at UVA by the U.S. Department of Education found Dean Eramo to have specifically contributed to the University’s hostile environment for sexual-assault victims — an assertion much more critical of Eramo than any statement from the Article,” Rolling Stone said in a statement. “During Eramo’s cross-examination today, she stated that she remains employed by UVA, at a higher salary. In fact, she was not reassigned to a new position at UVA in the Article’s immediate aftermath, but instead was moved to a new role more than a year after the Article ran, but shortly after the critical U.S. Department of Education report. 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 honor code violations.”
The statement echoed a major theme of the original story, which published in November 2014 but has since been retracted.
The article began with the account of a gang rape at a campus fraternity in which a student named “Jackie” recounted how she reported the assault to Eramo, who seemed to be unmoved by the brutality of the attack and later told her that the university did not share sexual-assault statistics publicly “because no one wants to send their daughter to a rape school.”
The article alleged that the university created a culture of indifference to sexual-assault victims, and it spurred protests, vandalism and a police investigation.
Eramo’s attorney argued Wednesday that Erdely took on the assignment with a preconceived narrative, hoping to expose institutional indifference to sexual assault at U-Va. — before doing any reporting. Libby Locke questioned Erdely about her line of reporting on sexual assault prior to “A Rape on Campus,” articles that included alleged coverups of sexual abuse and a report about a woman in the military who was assaulted by three of her colleagues. Erdely acknowledged on the stand that she never sought comment from the three men accused of assaulting the woman in that prior story.
As she began reporting on “A Rape in Campus,” she told sources that she was interested in doing an article similar to the one she did on military sexual assault. Erdely testified that she was trying to show sources that she had experience reporting on victims of sexual assault, not that she sought to tell the same story.
“In no way was this a template,” Erdely said, noting that she was “open to wherever the reporting was going to lead me.”
Earlier investigations of the Rolling Stone story revealed that Erdely did not try to contact the purported assailants in Jackie’s account, in part because Jackie refused to identify them. Erdely also did not contact several friends of Jackie’s at U-Va. who were described as discouraging her from going to authorities or the hospital after the attack; those friends told The Washington Post that many details of the encounter were reported inaccurately, and they provided evidence that Jackie had created a fictional persona as the ringleader of the attack.
But McNamara said in court that Erdely included not only criticism of Eramo but also flattering comments from students and sexual-assault survivors who lauded Eramo “as their best advocate and den mother.” Erdely described her as “beloved” on campus.
McNamara noted that Eramo had her own misgivings about the way she and the university had handled Jackie’s report. As the scope of the article became apparent to Eramo, she said in a text message to two of Jackie’s friends who worked on sexual-assault issues that she “should have conducted an investigation due to the public safety risk despite the wishes of the accuser.”
Instead, administrators had contacted the fraternity’s national headquarters and directed officials there to conduct an investigation. Separately, another dean had asked members about the assault but took no further action.
“You didn’t feel that was adequate, is that right?” McNamara asked Eramo. Eramo agreed.
After the article published, Jackie’s story fell apart under scrutiny; a police investigation determined that the allegations against the fraternity were unfounded.
McNamara also underscored that long before the article was published, U-Va. — and Eramo — had been under investigation by the Education Department over the school’s handling of sexual-assault cases. In September 2015, the department released its findings, which were highly critical of the school and of Eramo.
One of the factors that led authorities to criticize Eramo was an interview that she did with student journalists, discussing sexual-assault prevention on campus. Jurors on Wednesday watched the video of the interview, during which a student journalist pressed Eramo on why students could be expelled for cheating under the university’s honor-code but none — not even those who admitted to assaulting a classmate — had been expelled for sexual misconduct.
Eramo told the student that when an assailant admits to sexual misconduct, “it shows a recognition that what they’ve done is wrong” and shows they are amenable to rehabilitation. Further, Eramo told the student, many victims do not want to see their accusers punished.
The university did not accept the department’s findings, and in court Wednesday, Eramo said she, too, disagreed with them.
“I believe they completely misconstrued what I said in that video,” she said of federal authorities.