Commentary: Rolling Stone settles first lawsuit over debunked campus sexual assault story

By   /   April 12, 2017

Creative Commons / User Bob Mical

Creative Commons / User Bob Mical

RAPE HOAX: A University of Virginia fraternity was protested and vandalized following a false rape accusation published by Rolling Stone.

Rolling Stone has settled with former University of Virginia dean Nicole Eramo over the magazine’s portrayal of her in a since-debunked story about a gang-rape that never happened.

The original article published on Nov. 20, 2014, depicted a horrific story: A young college freshman goes on a date with a handsome fraternity member, who takes her back to a party at the fraternity house and lures her upstairs where half a dozen other members are waiting to gang rape her. After hours of being raped, she escapes and calls her friends, who, rather than taking her to the hospital, tell her to be quiet or else they’ll all be social outcasts. When the woman told her story to a university administrator, Eramo, she was brushed off, allegedly being told that “nobody wants to send their daughter to the rape school.”

Except none of it was true. There was no party at the fraternity house. Her friends weren’t interviewed for the story, and when they finally were, insisted that not only did they beg the young woman to go to the hospital, two of them stayed with her that night to comfort her. And, most damaging at all, the fraternity member with whom she had a date didn’t even exist; the woman made him up in order to make another man (whom she called the night of the alleged incident) jealous.

Eramo sued Rolling Stone in May 2015 for the way she was portrayed. She claimed she never said anything about U.Va. potentially being labeled a rape school, and was able to demonstrate that Rolling Stone altered a photo of her to make her look callous. The original photo was of Eramo in a classroom, holding a pen. The doctored photo made her skin blue, altered her eyes and mouth and removed the pen to make it look like she was smiling and giving a “thumbs up” as a girl cried in her office.

The defamation suit eventually went to trial, where it was revealed that Rolling Stone edited out information favorable to Eramo and that the author of the article – Sabrina Rubin Erdely – had an extreme bias against fraternities before she started writing. When publisher Jann Wenner took the stand, he said he regretted fully retracting the article and claimed he had “suffered as much as” Eramo had. Wenner, whose net worth is $700 million and who is still the publisher of Rolling Stone, claimed he suffered as much as a college dean who tried to help rape victims and lost her job while being maligned in the press, through no fault of her own.

A jury found Wenner, the magazine and Erdely liable on three counts of defamation, and were ordered to pay Eramo more than $3 million. The details of the settlement were not revealed, but Rolling Stonecalled it an “amicable resolution” in a statement provided to the Washington Post.

Libby Locke, an attorney for Eramo, released a statement saying she and her client were “delighted that this dispute is now behind us, as it allows Nicole to move on and focus on doing what she does best, which is supporting victims of sexual assault.”

Erdely eventually lost her job at Rolling Stone (though that didn’t happen until long after the story unraveled and the lawsuits began to roll in). Like Wenner, in court documents she expressed remorse while claiming victimhood.

“This experience has been devastating to me, both professionally and personally. Never in my 20-plus years as a reporter have I had a story or a source fall apart on me after publication,” Erdely said. “After feeling so sure about the article, and believing so strongly that it would help spur change on college campuses, losing faith in the credibility of one of my major sources post-publication took me entirely by surprise. I was stunned and shaken by the experience, and remain so to this day.”

Erdely has actually had multiple stories fall apart after publication, though none have received the level of attention that the rape hoax article did. She won a college journalism award for a story about folk singer Michelle Shocked that turned out to be false. Erdely was supposed to attend a press conference with Shocked, but missed it and wrote her article by cobbling together information from other media outlets. During the trial, Eramo’s lawyers played footage of Erdely acknowledging that “just about everything in the story was wrong.”

Maybe Erdely was talking about her career as a professional reporter. She’s wrong there, as well. It actually appears as though Erdely has rarely, if ever, corroborated a story. Two years before the rape hoax, Erdely wrote an article titled “The Rape of Petty Officer Blumer.” Much like the U.Va. story, Erdely tells a horrifying story, but provides little in the way of corroborating details.

Leon Wolf, then with RedState, looked into the story after the campus sexual assault hoax, and found numerous errors that suggest that rape was a fake as well. The accuser in that story didn’t say she was raped, as Erdely’s article claimed. The potential sexual assault was brought up by a member of the Navy command while interrogating the officer after she was arrested for DUI. Sexual assault wasn’t mentioned in the police report that night, nor was any physical evidence ever found to corroborate the claim.

There was contact DNA found on the upper back of the petty officer’s underwear, which Erdely described as “proof that something happened,” though such contact DNA could have come from anyone in a number of non-rape circumstances, such as an officer picking up the woman’s clothes after she took them off in jail.

Erdely also published a story about a young man who claimed to be raped by a Catholic priest, but that story, too, appears to be a hoax. Ralph Cipriano, a former L.A. Times and Philadelphia Inquirer reported, chronicled the inaccuracies in the accuser’s claims. Essentially, a young drug addict claimed to be raped by priests and a teacher while he was an altar boy. His story constantly changed, but he was able to convince a grand jury to indict four men, who ended up in jail.

In each instance, Erdely appears to have done no actual journalism and relied on accusations and outside opinions.

Rolling Stone and the author still face a lawsuit from the fraternity maligned in the article, whose U.Va. house was vandalized and protested after the article was published. The woman who made the false accusation was recently ordered to comply with that lawsuit.