The writer of the widely criticized Rolling Stone article “A Rape on Campus” testified Thursday that her depiction of an administrator at the University of Virginia, who is suing her, was fair and accurate, despite the story’s numerous errors.
“She still works at the university, she still got a pay raise,” Sabrina Rubin Erdely said under direct examination by plaintiff Nicole Eramo’s attorney in federal court in Charlottesville.
Eramo, the former associate dean of students who used to head up UVA’s Sexual Misconduct Board, alleges she was negatively portrayed in Erdely’s November 2014 article as being indifferent to the plight of an alleged gang rape victim that the article referred to as “Jackie,” and that she discouraged her and other alleged survivors from filing complaints with the university, which Eramo has denied.
Eramo is suing Erdely and Rolling Stone on the grounds of defamation for a total of nearly $8 million.
“I’m sure that her feelings were hurt,” Erdely testified in her own defense, but the defamation lawsuit “… seems to me that it has more to do with her being personally found in violation of Title IX and nothing to do with [my story].”
Erdely reported in her article that “Jackie” was gang raped by several men at a frat house party in 2012 during her freshman year at UVA, a top-tier college campus known for its so-called party atmosphere.
But Charlottesville Police Department officials launched a five-month investigation and concluded that they could not find “substantive basis to support the account alleged in the Rolling Stone article.” The fraternity where the rape allegedly occurred, Phi Kappa Psi, denied any wrongdoing. Friends and confidants told different versions of events.
The article was eventually retracted after a report by the Columbia Journalism Review that called into question numerous errors Erdely and Rolling Stone had made, saying it was “a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable.”
Rolling Stone agreed that errors were made, but it is fighting Eramo’s lawsuit.
“We made journalistic mistakes with respect to Jackie's story and we have learned from them, but these mistakes do not support Dean Eramo's lawsuit,” the publication said in a statement to ABC News Thursday.
“The depiction of Dean Eramo in the Article was balanced and described the challenges of her role. We now look forward to the jury's decision in this case."
U.S. district Judge Glen Conrad has ruled that Eramo will be considered a “limited purpose public figure” in the case. Under legal standards, it means she must demonstrate that Rolling Stone and Erdely published defamatory falsehoods about her knowing they were false or with “reckless disregard” for their truth.
Erdely declined ABC News’ request for an interview before the trial began, citing the ongoing defamation suits.
A few weeks after the publication of “A Rape on Campus,” Erdely told the jury Thursday, she said she was concerned that Jackie was no longer credible. She fired off an email early in the morning of Dec. 5, 2014, to her editors with the subject line “OUR WORST NIGHTMARE” and called for a retraction of her story.
Later that same day, Rolling Stone added a note to the story to acknowledge its reporting errors with an apology to those injured by Erdely’s story, including UVA administrators.
Eramo was later removed from her position as an associate dean of students and as head of UVA’s Sexual Misconduct Board, but is still employed with the university.
Erdely broke down several times answering questions about the way she handled her four-month investigation into Jackie’s claims.
“I stand by everything in the article that did not come from Jackie,” Erdely said.
’We Love Dean Eramo’
The jury listened to audio recordings from Erdely’s taped interviews with Jackie, who is heard repeatedly exclaiming her admiration for Eramo but also fearful that Eramo would be blamed for the university’s handling of rape cases once the story was published. As an associate dean, Eramo served as the intake person for sexual assault victims and advocated in their behalf.
“I feel like it would be really f---- up if they decide that it’s Dean Eramo who’s giving them bad publicity and they kick her in the bucket when the problem’s not her,” Jackie said to Erdely in the taped interview. “It’s people above her, they’re the problem, and she just does what she can.”
Excerpts from their conversations reviewed Thursday illustrate Erdely's concerns about Eramo.
“I know you love her but it’s not clear she’s not doing right by you or by the university in this scenario. … I think this situation is probably being mishandled … and she may be putting the community at risk,” Erdely said.
In another exchange with Jackie, Erdely is recorded as saying: “So why, why isn’t Dean Eramo f------ doing anything?” Erdely says. “This makes me so mad, actually.”
Eramo has said that she did everything to investigate the case but that Jackie never wanted to report the alleged rape.
“I wasn’t talking about any particular dean in this instance,” Erdely said in defense of her story. “This article is not about Dean Eramo.”
A Reporter's Nightmare
Erdely admitted Thursday in court that many mistakes were made in her reporting of the story.
“I wish that Jackie had not been in my story,” Erdely said. “It wasn’t a mistake to rely on someone emotionally fragile. It was a mistake to rely on someone intent to deceive me.”
Eramo’s lawyer Libby Locke peppered Erdely with questions about the 9,000-word story, revealing the gaping holes in her reporting, the vague sourcing and erroneous assumptions, which Erdely agreed had happened.
Emails were shown in court from Erdely’s editor, who raised questions about the publication‘s inability to track down any of the men who Jackie had said allegedly raped her.
During her investigation of the story, Erdely testified Thursday, she heard several versions from other sources of what they had been told by Jackie happened the night she said she was raped. Some say Jackie told them it was five men who had raped her, while others said they were told it could have been up to 10, she testified.
Jackie had told various people she had been raped by a broken beer bottle, and others told Erdely that it was with a hanger, Erdely testified.
“It had never occurred to me that details were inconsistent,” she said. “I have an understanding of trauma victim behavior. … Yes, the details had changed over time … as is typical of trauma survivors.”
Locke said, “You only elected to tell the story that Jackie had been thrown over a table and vaginally raped by seven men.”
“Yes,” Erdely replied.
And she admitted relied heavily on hearsay.
“It’s embarrassing to say it,” Erdely said. “I’m not proud of that. This is not an excuse, this is an explanation. I was taking so many reporting avenues. I was thinking about so many other things.”
As Locke listed Erdely’s inability to verify key details of the story, Erdely broke down in tears.
Her testimony resumes today.