In the suit against Rolling Stone by University of Virginia dean Nicole Eramo over the magazine’s false rape story, the trial rolls along, with the two sides offering a narrow band of arguments: according to Rolling Stone and former reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely, our nation’s campuses are teeming with sexual assaults, beset by a “rape culture,” and the UVA administration was indifferent to the student victims in its midst. (Even the Office for Civil Rights has said so, Rolling Stone lawyers have argued.)
It is difficult, therefore, to have sympathy for either party in Eramo’s lawsuit. (Phi Kappa Psi’s lawsuit against Erdely is another matter.) But the Eramo lawsuit has been of extraordinary value in bringing to light the flawed process through which the Rolling Stone article was produced. First came the discovery material, including Erdely’s reporting notes. And now, Charlottesville TV station CBS-19 obtained a 150-minute recording of what seems to have been the first detailed interview between Erdely and accuser “Jackie.”
I posted brief audio excerpts of the choicest elements of that conversation. It occurred in a restaurant; some portions of the audio are of very poor quality.
Erdely comes across as closed-minded, having already decided on her thesis. (Her research notes showed that she began her project by interviewing the anti-due process fanatic Wendy Murphy and the discredited researcher David Lisak.) Jackie, meanwhile, comes across as even more ideologically extreme than Erdely—which is saying something—and not terribly bright. She discusses failing multiple courses during the conversation; how she remained enrolled at UVA is a mystery.
Effects on Lawsuits
The material on this tape would seem to help Rolling Stone in the Eramo lawsuit and badly hurt it in the Phi Kappa Psi lawsuit. Regarding Eramo: One of the dean’s libel claims comes from the article’s claim that she told Jackie that UVA didn’t aggressively report sexual assaults because the publicity would be harmful, since “nobody wants to send their daughter to the rape school.”
Eramo refused Erdely’s request for an interview. But the tape has Jackie claiming that Eramo gave her that feedback (and another campus activist told Erdely the same thing). Furthermore, the tape has Jackie portraying Eramo as corrupt—after saying she didn’t want to get Eramo “in trouble,” Jackie asserted that the actual number of people who reported being sexually assaulted to Eramo was “much higher” than Eramo has reported to her superiors—thereby suggesting that Eramo had violated federal law. Rolling Stone thus can (and, obviously, will) say that it had a seemingly credible source for Eramo’s “rape school” alleged statement.
At the same time, the tape should provide substantial ammunition for Phi Kappa Psi. Erdely made clear that she sees what happened (or in this case, didn’t happen) to Jackie as a “gang rape initiation ritual,” and therefore wanted the article to identify the fraternity. She added that she “want[ed] to get these guys.” Members of the fraternity, Erdely mused later on, personified the “banality of evil,” in that the non-attacker members of the frat were afraid to ask questions, lest they learn too much. Phi Kappa Psi, Erdely concluded, was a fraternity “that might have a culture of gang rape.”
After these quotes—in her own voice—it’s going to be very hard for Erdely to argue that her article didn’t directly target Phi Kappa Psi. And since the article’s claims were false, that would seem to be very bad for Rolling Stone.
As Ashe Schow has noted, the tape showed that Erdely harbors a strong bias against fraternities. Both Erdely and Jackie also entertained an imagined view in which—as Jackie put it—“nobody wants to talk about” sexual assault on college campuses. (Of course, there are few issues that get talked about more on contemporary elite campuses.) Erdely, meanwhile, envisioned an elite campus culture in which “social capital is more important than people’s safety,” and therefore students were unwilling to help victims in their midst. Again, this seems to be an almost wholly imagined view.
They’re describing, of course, the same campus whose student leadership and voices of student opinion would remain committed to Jackie’s tale even after it had collapsed.
The conversation gave a sense of Jackie’s extremist beliefs, her rather unappealing personality—and if Erdely had been at all open-minded, her penchant for tall tales.
She pressed Erdely not to name Phi Kappa Psi in the article, worried that the fraternity members would “hate” her as a result. But she also argued that leaving the identity of the fraternity a mystery would serve a broader purpose of stimulating a witch hunt atmosphere on campus.
If UVA administrators didn’t know which fraternity was the site of the seemingly horrific attack, Jackie said that she “would hope to see” full-scale investigations of all fraternities. Innocent fraternities, Jackie breezily suggested, should welcome such an inquiry, since, after all, “the ones that have nothing to hide won’t be upset.”
Since most of Jackie’s ideas seem to have emanated from what Erdely terms her “club” of campus activists, it would be interesting to know how many of Jackie’s fellow accusers’ rights activists shared this extraordinary conception of fairness. Jackie also saw an extraordinarily dangerous campus she suggested that one in three UVA female students are sexual assault victims.
In justifying BuzzFeed’s decision not to identify Jackie, Tyler Kingkade bizarrely suggests that she might actually be a victim. He incorrectly asserts that “none of the publicly available court documents . . . use[s] Jackie’s full name.” Kingkade then obtains a quote from the Columbia Journalism School’s Steve Coll, co-author of the autopsy that avoided asking hard questions about why the magazine had so badly failed. “She never solicited Rolling Stone to be written about,” Coll said.
The 150-minute conversation, however, showed a figure eager, even joyous, at advancing her narrative. Jackie actively participated in the interview—she seemed to very, very much enjoy talking about herself and her feelings. She suggested multiple other witnesses. She talked about her myriad activities advancing her agenda on campus. And she told Erdely about her eagerness to create “bad publicity” against UVA.
Jackie also came across as someone with significant mental health issues. (Of course, since we now know she’s a liar, her description of her mental health might also be a lie.) She told Erdely that she’d seen at least four different mental health professionals—when she was 14 (to address her poor relationship with her father), as a senior in high school (parental issues, again), at the urging of her mother after the purported campus assault, and at the urging of a friend after the purported campus assault. The latter ended because the counselor didn’t adopt Jackie’s preferred approach to the session: “Can we talk about what I want to talk about?”
Finally, there were red flags in the interview that a less agenda-driven reporter might have picked up. For instance, Jackie (at considerable length) discussed her mother’s time in college, when she commuted 30 minutes each way as a day student at Brown. But the mother didn’t go to Brown (as Erdely later discovered).
Jackie said that after the alleged assault, she “didn’t get out of bed for weeks.” She later claimed that she left campus two weeks before the end of the semester in her first-year fall term. Yet Erdely never asked how she could have stayed enrolled if she never attended class, and wasn’t even on campus.
She twice informed Erdely that even one of her fellow activists told her “you are insane, you watch too many crime shows.” (Various elements of her story borrowed from Law and Order.)
And in a long discussion about whether the article would name Phi Kappa Psi, Jackie urged anonymity of the frat on grounds that she was scared that fraternity members would learn she had claimed she was raped in their house. Yet at other points in the conversation, she spoke about how lots of people on campus already knew about her story, and Erdely knew that she had spoken about the event at a “victims’ rights” rally.
Erdely, the non-skeptical reporter, did not probe the inconstancies. Indeed, she appears to have believed the inconsistencies made Jackie more credible.