Jury Finds 'Rolling Stone,' Reporter Liable Over Rape Allegation Story
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
A federal jury has found Rolling Stone magazine liable of defamation. This in connection with a story it ran about a gang rape at the University of Virginia in 2014. That rape never took place. The jury's verdict also faults the reporter and the magazine's parent company. NPR's David Folkenflik has been covering this story from the beginning and joins us now. Hi, David.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Remind us of the events that led to this lawsuit.
FOLKENFLIK: So story's published in late 2014. And it reflects - it's about campus rape broadly - rape broadly, but really focuses on the University of Virginia, this alleged gang rape. A woman named "Jackie" - in quotes - tells a story about being gang raped at this fraternity. The reporter, Sabrina Erdely, it turns out, did not interview or make an attempt to interview any of the alleged assailants, depicts a dean at the university who's assigned to talk to victims as uncaring and unwilling to really pursue this case. And it turns out that depiction wasn't particularly fair. And there were other severe reporting lapses as well.
SHAPIRO: Now, to reach this verdict, the jury had to find something called actual malice. Explain what that phrase means and how it applies in this context.
FOLKENFLIK: It was very interesting. You know, actual malice doesn't mean actually being malicious. It means that you didn't do your due diligence to try to figure out whether something was true, or you might've had reason to believe something wasn't true. And the jury found against - on this standard - both Sabrina Erdely, the reporter, and separately against Rolling Stone and its parent company, Wenner Media, but for different reasons.
For Sabrina Erdely, she didn't reach out to try to identify or to interview, as I said, the assailants. She seems to have made minimal effort to talk to the dean - who sued - to try to get her side of the story. But she also didn't talk to the friends of this woman who presented herself as this victim, who the victim - as we understood it during the story - said she had told all - this entire account to contemporaneously.
And why is that important? It's important because the story was presented in almost a cinematic narrative, not with attribution, not with a sense that there's any other way really of looking at what happened and with the understanding that these friends had been told contemporaneously about it as they later told The Washington Post - as others - those friends were told something different. So that was the actual malice for the reporter.
For the magazine and for its parent company, this story was posted online on the 19 of November 2014, almost exactly two years ago. And that was not something for which the magazine and its parent company was held liable. What they were held liable was that questions were raised in the days that ensued. And yet, they still published the same story, the same allegations about this dean, Nicole Eramo, and about this incident, which turns out not to have happened, even though - in the print magazine, on the 5 of December, even though substantive and serious questions had been raised about the credibility of that account.
SHAPIRO: What effect is this guilty verdict likely to have on Rolling Stone and its parent company?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, it's already had a huge credibility hit on the magazine. The question of whether - you know, it's a magazine with a voice, often a strong point of view, clearly crusading on this question of campus race - rape, but really compromised in this instance.
It's also had a financial hit. Jann Wenner had to sell a 49 percent stake in the magazine for the first time in its existence into the son of a billionaire from China. He's had to mitigate his costs that way.
SHAPIRO: And does this verdict have implications for other journalists who might be reporting on sensitive topics like sexual assault?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, it certainly gives a heft and credence to institutions under fire from reporters to say, oh, you know, we're not going to participate. We're not going to take part. They're going to do a hatchet job. They don't care to listen. And I think the reminder is that all journalists, even point-of-view ones, even advocacy ones have to take the reporting part seriously. They have to test their own assumptions. They have to test their own sources no matter how deeply they believe in them, otherwise they can undermine not only their own story, but the profession itself.
SHAPIRO: NPR's David Folkenflik, thank you.
FOLKENFLIK: You bet.
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