Rolling Stone, the Jann Wenner-founded magazine that went beyond its musical roots to embrace youth culture in the '60s, gonzo journalism in the '70s, and hard-hitting political coverage from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, has suffered perhaps its greatest legal blow in the publication's storied half-century history. On Friday, a federal jury in Virginia delivered a rebuke to Rolling Stone in a closely watched defamation case over a controversial article about the gang rape of a freshman identified as "Jackie" at a University of Virginia campus fraternity. The verdict that Rolling Stone, parent company Wenner Media, and writer Sabrina Rudin Erdely were liable on multiple libel claims was announced after a two-week trial. The decision on what damages to award will come later.
Nicole Eramo, the university's former associate dean, sued Rolling Stone in May 2015, claiming the publication's controversial story cast her as the "chief villain," who "silenced" Jackie or "discouraged" her from reporting her alleged gang rape to the police. Eramo was seeking $7.5 million in damages.
The story in question, titled "A Rape on Campus" and written by Erdely, was published in the magazine's Nov. 19, 2014, issue, and immediately came under fire when the Washington Post identified discrepancies in the reporting. Within weeks, Rolling Stone had to apologize for not thoroughly fact-checking it. After the Columbia School of Journalism led a commissioned investigation, Rolling Stone retracted the campus rape story in April 2015.
The publication then was hit with multiple defamation lawsuits. One from members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, where the rape allegedly happened, didn't survive for long, though the fraternity itself is still live in a defamation case. In September, U.S. District Judge Glen Conrad allowed Eramo in her lawsuit to move to trial by rejecting a summary judgment bid by Rolling Stone.
To prevail, Eramo had to convince the jury that the statements in the story directed at UVA administration were "of and concerning" her, that the statements were factually untrue, and that her reputation was damaged. Ruled to be a limited-purpose public figure, Eramo also had to prove the magazine acted with actual malice, meaning its reporters and editors had knowledge of falsity or had reckless disregard for the truth.
Although the faulty campus rape story became a black eye for Rolling Stone, the publication was handed certain advantages on the path to today's verdict. In the midst of trial, Judge Conrad ruled as a matter of law that Eramo couldn't win on a claim she was defamed by implication. Moreover, the judge instructed the jury that a mere failure to investigate doesn't establish actual malice.
In closing arguments delivered Tuesday after a two-week trial, plaintiff's attorney Tom Clare aimed to convince the jury of Rolling Stone's recklessness by saying the publication had completed its article with a preconceived notion.
"Once they decided what the article was going to be about, it didn't matter what the facts were," said Clare, adding that Erdely was "blind to the facts" and that she painted Eramo as the villain because the university official represented an "easy target."
In turn, Rolling Stone attorney Scott Sexton told the the jury that "everyone who encountered this young woman believed her," referring to Jackie, including members of the administration at the University of Virginia. As did Erdely, Sexton continued, acknowledging the writer now feels foolish for doing so. "But foolish doesn't count," he added.
The trial gave the jury an opportunity to weigh the work of one influential journalistic institution and send a message in the midst of a highly charged election season featuring tales of sexual assault and cries of dishonesty and bias in the press. It also comes in a year when many members of the media were shocked by Hulk Hogan's $140 million verdict in Florida against Gawker in an invasion-of-privacy case that brought down that news website.
Just days before the country elects its next leader, seven jurors in a Virginia courtroom took almost 20 hours across three days to consider Rolling Stone's liability - a marathon session that was nearly three times the amount of time that jurors spent deliberating in the Hogan trial. These citizens, directed to weigh contested facts and apply them within a legal framework established with the goal of ensuring a free and vigorous press, but also a responsible one, came to the conclusion that Eramo had indeed proven that several statements in the story were actionable and that the writer had actual malice in making them and that Rolling Stone had actual malice in republishing the statements in its Dec. 5 editors' note. (See the jury's verdict form, which goes into more detail about the statements at issue.) The question now turns to Rolling Stone's punishment.
Here's a statement from the publication in reaction to the verdict:
"For almost 50 years, Rolling Stone has aimed to produce journalism with the highest reporting and ethical standards, and with a strong humanistic point of view. When we published 'A Rape on Campus' in 2014, we were attempting to tackle the very serious and complex topic of sexual assault on college campuses, a subject that is more relevant today than ever. In our desire to present this complicated issue from the perspective of a survivor, we overlooked reporting paths and made journalistic mistakes that we are committed to never making again. We deeply regret these missteps and sincerely apologize to anyone hurt by them, including Ms. Eramo. It is our deep hope that our failings do not deflect from the pervasive issues discussed in the piece, and that reporting on sexual assault cases ultimately results in campus policies that better protect our students. We will continue to publish stories that shine a light on the defining social, political and cultural issues of our times, and we will continue to seek the truth in every story we publish."