Journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely has been on the stand in Charlottesville’s federal court the last few days, defending her indefensible acts. “It was a mistake to rely on someone whose intent it was to deceive me,” she cried, weeping at her own misfortune.
Nicole P. Eramo, a former associate dean of students at University of Virginia, has filed a defamation lawsuit against Rolling Stone magazine and Erdely. It is one of the decade’s biggest libel cases.
In November 2014 Rolling Stone published “A Rape on Campus,” which recounted a freshman named Jackie brutally gang-raped at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house two years earlier. Erdely’s 9,000-word narrative instantly caught fire, featured in the New York Times and on Yahoo alike. Erdely triumphantly shared her insights about rape culture on PBS NewsHour and NPR. Then a respected editor named Richard Bradley questioned the facts of her article. Several sharply reported Washington Post articles by T. Rees Shapiro revealed what really happened. Erdely’s story folded. A later investigation by Charlottesville police found no evidence to back up claims. Rolling Stone eventually retracted the article and apologized.
Eramo has since sought $7.5 million in compensatory damages and $350,000 in punitive damages. Erdely portrayed Eramo, who was responsible for handling sexual-assault complaints, as UVA’s callous front, more interested in the school’s image than in justice. The legal issue is whether Erdely and her editors deliberately avoided following leads that could have disproved the story. A federal judge earlier deemed Eramo a public figure, so she must prove actual malice or establish that Erdely and the magazine knew that its article was false before publication.
Between Sabrina’s sobs, keep some things in mind.
Erdeley, 43, embodies the slick “message” journalism that puts a higher premium on narrative than facts. Typically describing a heartbreaking affliction involving racial, gender or economic wrongs, this genre is crafted to arouse progressive indignation. A generation of journalists has grown up with this mindset. Many see themselves as crusaders for a new and better America, not mere reporters.
When Erdely wrote her article, she might really have believed rape culture on campuses was a pressing issue. But she knew what she was selling, had been doing it for a while, and loved the audience, money, and limelight she received in return. She stood to make $300,000 in a seven-story contract with Rolling Stone. No doubt she was angling for a movie or television deal.
Erdely had it in for UVA from the start, fantasizing a bastion of old money and privilege where “social status is paramount.” She specifically sought out the school for her rape story. Characterizing UVA’s “aura of preppy success, where throngs of toned, tanned and overwhelmingly blond students fanned across a landscape of neoclassical brick buildings” early in her story, Erdely was sending red-alert leftist code to Rolling Stone readers.
By the time the Rolling Stone article was closing, Erdely knew her article was built on sand and could crumble. She had fenced off information and interviews she feared would ruin her juicy story. Rolling Stone never tried to contact the alleged assailants. It could not get Jackie to name her attackers. The incident had never been reported to the Charlottesville police.
When queried in court about Jackie’s mental shape, “I’m not a doctor,” Erdely replied coldly. “I have no qualms about building my lede around someone who is emotionally fragile.” Asked about Jackie’s multiple inconsistencies, she glibly improvised: “Yeah, the details changed over time as she came to terms with the rape, which is typical of trauma survivors.”
Sabrina is a fast item with a dodgy publications list. Since “A Rape on Campus,” her other too-good-to-be-checked articles have been questioned, and her fixation on sexual assaults noted. In Sabrina’s world, traditional male authority figures respected for their holiness or heroism or attractive, jocky, rich campus winners turn out to be rapists and monsters. Whether in churches or armed forces or fraternities, they do terrible things. They deserve the reader’s contempt and hatred. As a corollary, institutions — church, military, and university — should be doing something more to end the horrible sexual crimes. (In truth, the Vatican and dioceses, the U.S. military, and college administrators nationwide are hyper-vigilant, hyper-aware, and often obsessed by sex-assault claims.)
Eramo, a cog in UVA’s feminist grievance machine, has a high bar to jump to get her money. The remorseless UVA president Teresa Sullivan — in on the fix with Erdely before the article’s publication — has gone unpunished for using the Rolling Stone article to discredit and suspend fraternities and sororities.
Erdely sought to stir up anger over rape culture and fraternities. In her zeal and self-interest she has done the opposite. In a perfect world Sullivan and Erdely would together fold their tents in shame and slip quietly into the night. They will not. A $25 million lawsuit filed by the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity against Rolling Stone is scheduled to go to trial next year, and few observers wish for either the magazine or writer to get off the hook.