CHARLOTTESVILLE — The Rolling Stone staffer responsible for fact-checking an article about a gang rape at the University of Virginia testified Tuesday in federal court that she had no doubts about the story when it was published in 2014 but acknowledged that she later regretted the article’s flaws.
The fact checker, Elisabeth Garber-Paul, said she was responsible for ensuring that “everything was as accurate as possible before we went to press” with the article in November 2014. She testified that she had worked for the magazine since 2010 and had reviewed hundreds of articles before being assigned to fact-check the feature by journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely about sex assault at U-Va. Garber-Paul said she spent 80 hours scrutinizing the article, going line by line and word for word to vouch for its credibility.
“When we went to print, I believed it all to be true,” Garber-Paul said. “To have that all fall apart, that was incredibly traumatic for me.”
Garber-Paul’s testimony came on the eighth day of former U-Va. dean Nicole Eramo’s defamation lawsuit against Rolling Stone, which alleges the article, “A Rape on Campus,” smeared her, destroyed her life’s work and hurt her career by offering a false account of a gang rape and making the claim that Eramo was callous and indifferent to sex crimes on campus at a time when she was responsible for working with rape survivors.
The article pivoted around the experiences of “Jackie,” a student who said she was brutally assaulted at a fraternity house near campus during her freshman year in 2012. Rolling Stone later retracted the account after an investigation by The Washington Post showed significant discrepancies in the article’s reporting. A subsequent inquiry by the Charlottesville Police Department concluded that Jackie’s 2012 attack, as described by Rolling Stone, never occurred.
Garber-Paul said that she had previously worked with Erdely and had been impressed by her diligent and thorough reporting. She said in court that as she read the article she had no doubts about its veracity. She testified that she spent four hours discussing specific facts about Jackie’s encounter in the fraternity house, and Garber-Paul said she felt satisfied that the U-Va. student was telling the truth.
But she acknowledged that she was aware that aspects of Jackie’s account had evolved over time, including a discrepancy in the number of men she said had attacked her. Garber-Paul said she knew that Jackie’s friend Emily Renda had given congressional testimony in June 2014 referring to Jackie being assaulted by five fraternity brothers. Garber-Paul said that she believed at the time that the inconsistency in Jackie’s story was attributable to how trauma can affect the memory of assault survivors.
“It takes them time to come to terms with it,” Garber-Paul said, noting that she had discussed the effects of traumatic experiences on victims with her mother, a licensed clinical social worker.
Garber-Paul testified that when she asked Jackie about the alleged assault, she was able to provide many specifics and vivid details.
“They were 360-degree memories,” Garber-Paul said. “I had a sense she was reliving one of the worst moments of her life. . . . We had to pause a couple of times so she could catch her breath. It seemed like she could close her eyes and tell me exactly what she was seeing.”
In a taped deposition, Jackie declined to elaborate on aspects of her assault, saying that she has post-traumatic stress disorder and memory loss and has trouble remembering what she told Erdely.
Garber-Paul said that she deeply regrets not verifying quotes attributed to friends of Jackie’s that appeared in the article, part of a critical scene that painted U-Va. students as more interested in their own reputations than helping a classmate who said she had been attacked. Jackie told Rolling Stone that she did not want the magazine to speak to the friends who met her on the night of her alleged attack, because they had a falling out. The friends later spoke to The Post and said they were never contacted by Rolling Stone to confirm their account, which differed significantly from what appeared in the magazine.
Garber-Paul said that in retrospect she acknowledged that Jackie’s reluctance to have Rolling Stone contact the friends should have been a “red flag.”
Correction: An earlier version of this report misspelled Elisabeth Garber-Paul’s first name.