It was one of the most astonishing lapses of journalistic integrity in modern American history. Rolling Stone, a once-respected – if relentlessly liberal – publication – trashed their reputation by running what now appears to have been a wholly fictitious tale of rape on the campus of the University of Virginia. Within days of the story’s 2014 publication, journalists and law enforcement officials began to question the veracity of the reporting. It wasn’t long before the entire story unraveled and it became clear that the so-called victim in the story – “Jackie” – had invented her tragedy from whole cloth.
But it wasn’t “Jackie” who was put on trial; it was Rolling Stone and the story’s writer, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, both of whom ignored many disturbing red flags on the way to publishing “A Rape on Campus.” The two entities were sued for defamation by UVA administrator Nicole Eramo, who was vilified in the piece for not doing enough to punish the fraternity involved in the (nonexistent) gang rape.
On Monday, a jury awarded Eramo $3 million in damages.
That judgement wouldn’t have been possible if the jury had simply found Rolling Stone and Erdely guilty of shoddy journalism. In delivering their verdict, they found that the magazine and the writer had shown intentional malice in publishing the piece, having overlooked so many signs that “Jackie’s” story was not true.
The magazine’s lawyers argued that Rolling Stone’s reputation had already been damaged enough, but Eramo couldn’t muster any sympathy.
“It took two years and all this to get an apology,” she said from the witness stand. “And I still don’t believe it is a real apology. The regret I see is that they’re in the position they’re in today.”
The case has come to act as a potent symbol for the men’s rights movement, who say that an overemphasis on the threat of campus rape has left schools and male students in a no-win situation. Simultaneously, it has been a blow to modern feminism, which has spent much of its political capital in recent years on concepts like “rape culture” in an effort to tighten laws governing consensual sex.
In many ways, though, the longterm conversation may be less focused on the particulars of the Rolling Stone story and more on the dangers of activist journalism. And in that conversation, the magazine’s shameful ethics are only a small part of the picture.