A lawsuit stemming from the most famous of the modern rape hoaxes—the Rolling Stone account of a brutal but fictional attack on “Jackie” at a University of Virginia fraternity—gained ground last week. A federal judge in Virginia ruled that UVA administrator Nicole Eramo’s lawsuit against Rolling Stone should go to trial.
The lawsuit has been of enormous value in producing documents that exposed both the closed-minded incompetence of Rolling Stone and the poisonous, guilt-presuming campus atmosphere at UVA. However, unlike the lawsuit filed by the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity (reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s chief target), an Eramo victory would send, at best, a mixed message.
Judge Glen Conrad’s ruling allowed Eramo’s suit to proceed on multiple grounds. The dean’s strongest claim involves Rolling Stone’s manipulation of a mundane photo of her, to give her wild, almost devil-like eyes, with her back turned to victims demanding justice. Even the Rolling Stone fact-checker, who independently concluded that the fantasist “Jackie” was telling the truth, worried that the photo was too harsh.
Conrad also greenlighted a count involving Erdely’s claim that Eramo had discouraged Jackie from reporting her non-existent attack because she worried that UVA would develop a reputation as a “rape school.” It seems very unlikely Eramo—who comes across in the depositions as a true believer about a campus rape panic—ever uttered such a remark. But Erdely had two sources suggesting otherwise (Jackie and a fellow campus activist), and UVA refused a request to let Eramo be interviewed. Perhaps that will be enough for Rolling Stone to prevail.
Other aspects of Eramo’s lawsuit, however, are deeply troubling. The UVA Dean gathered support from a variety of campus activists—Emily Renda, Sara Surface, and Alex Pinkleton—with a de facto goal of ensuring that the discrediting of the Rolling Stone article won’t discredit their joint cause of fueling a moral panic about the issue of campus sexual assault.
In depositions for the lawsuit, the activists framed Erdely as an irresponsible journalist (which is not hard to do)—but not because she was a closed-minded ideologue who had reached her conclusions before she did any investigation. Rather, the trio of activists criticized her—after the fact—for focusing on Jackie and Eramo, and not on what they see as the epidemic of victims on campus, and the indifference to them of administrators other than Eramo. So in this view, Eramo is a victim of Rolling Stone, but the magazine’s basic thesis was correct.
One Erdely source, Alex Pinkleton, summarized the view of the activists that people must not let Jackie’s lies get in the way of the preferred narrative. “We need to remember,” said she, “that the majority of survivors who come forward are telling the truth.” How people who did not tell the truth about being sexually assaulted could still be considered “survivors” Pinkleton has never explained.
It would not have been difficult for Rolling Stone to have discredited these activists’ depositions—after all, each of them vouched for the veracity of Jackie’s tale in their interviews with Erdely, and each seemed to be eager for the Jackie story to be told at the time. But Rolling Stone ultimately shied away from portraying these figures as the non-credible witnesses they are. The magazine probably had no choice—because Erdely had relied so heavily on them for her article. Moreover, Conrad’s ruling cited the depositions of these non-credible activists as proof that three individuals “advised Erdely that her portrayal of Eramo was inaccurate.”
Perhaps the oddest section of Conrad’s ruling dealt with Rolling Stone’s December 5, 2014 Editor’s Note, which disavowed the story. Eramo claims that because Rolling Stone only said it no longer believed Jackie, and because the magazine did not remove the allegedly defamatory statements about the dean, the disavowal constituted a republication of the attacks on Eramo. This interpretation is bizarre. Jackie was the story.
The repudiation of her truthfulness repudiated the entire article. I cannot imagine how anyone—except, perhaps, the activists who are now riding to Eramo’s defense—could have interpreted the disavowal as Rolling Stone expressing full confidence in everything else Erdely wrote about UVA.
In her deposition, Erdely expressed regret—not to the fraternity members she falsely accused. (She has never apologized to them.) Rather, she said that she wished that instead of orienting her article around Jackie, she had chosen another accuser (“Stacy”) to serve as the article’s spine. The rest of the article would have remained unchanged—and since Stacy’s story was (it seems) not self-evidently false, Rolling Stone would have needed to make no retraction.
I suspect if Erdely had followed that course, none of the activists currently defending Eramo would be on the UVA dean’s side. Ironically, despite the lawsuit, the opinions of campus sexual assault held by Erdely, Eramo, and the UVA activists seem to be almost identical.