A $7.5 million lawsuit against Rolling Stone and reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely is underway, brought by University of Virginia’s Associate Dean of Students Nicole Eramo. In her testimony, Erdely said she erred in relying on “Jackie,” the student who claimed to have been gang-raped at a campus fraternity: “It was a mistake to rely on someone whose intent was to deceive me.”
The trial was contentious before it even began: the court granted an emergency motion keeping Eramo and her lawyers from using deposition videos in court that she leaked to 20/20. The deposition shows Sabrina Rubin Erdely tearily talking about mistakes she made in reporting the story and her reaction to learning it was founded on an untrue story.
Since the trial started, the best reporting has been from Tyler Kingkade at Buzzfeed; he writes that Erdely admitted on the stand that she had made mistakes in reporting the story. Erdely told Jackie several times that she’d need to contact “Jay,” the man she accused of orchestrating the rape, but eventually dropped it. She also said that while she heard different versions of Jackie’s story, she chalked it up to trauma:
Emails, text messages, and reporting notes showed that Erdely repeatedly pressed Jackie for Jay’s last name and explained that she would have to contact him for comment. However, Erdely eventually agreed not to contact Jay, to keep Jackie involved in the article.
Erdely also testified that she heard different versions of Jackie’s story throughout her reporting but did not think this was an issue. “Yes, the details had changed over time as she came to terms with her rape,” Erdely said on the stand, but she did not press Jackie about those inconsistencies. “It had never concerned me that these details were inconsistent because this is the way trauma victims behave.”
The day before, Eramo testified; she has said that the RS story damaged her career and her health. Court testimony, as Kingkade tweeted, showed that she was prepared to sue over the story as early as November, before it was retracted.
CBS 19 reported that Eramo wept in court Tuesday, describing the backlash against her on campus after the story was published:
On Nov. 19, 2014, the article, “A Rape on Campus,” was published.
According to Eramo’s testimony, much of the gang rape depicted in the article had not been conveyed to her by Jackie.
Eramo says the backlash was immediate and negative, with protests and even death threats.
“It just seemed to be going completely viral, and I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “I felt alone and scared.”
Eramo’s attorneys also argue that positive statements about the dean in Erdely’s notes didn’t make it into the finished piece. They point to quotes from survivors’ advocates on campus, including one calling Eramo “my favorite human being on campus.” Jackie and Eramo were also in close communication, she testified, with the dean repeatedly urging her to report the alleged attack to the police.
Rolling Stone’s lawyers, as the Washington Post reports, has responded that Eramo was found by federal investigators to have contributed to the “hostile environment” towards survivors on campus. The magazine also issued a statement to that effect, which reads, in part:
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.
Eramo was moved to a different position after the story ran, but received a raise, which RS attorneys also contend means that the story didn’t damage her career.
Erdely was asked on the stand Thursday whether she had a “preconceived narrative” in mind before she started reporting at UVA, as the Post reports:
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.
Erdely responded that her earlier story on military sexual assault wasn’t “a template,” adding that she was “open to wherever the reporting was going to lead me.”
Erdely also wrote an apologetic statement shortly after the story began to fall apart, which came up again in court, Kingkade reports:
In this “mea culpa,” Erdely wrote that she wondered why she had hung the account of this alleged gang rape on someone as emotionally unstable as Jackie. The judge interjected at this point and pressed Erdely to answer whether she still felt that way.
“It wasn’t a mistake to rely on someone who was so emotionally fragile,” Erdely responded, choking back tears again. “It was a mistake to rely on someone whose intent was to deceive me.”
The trial is continuing Thursday afternoon.