Nicole Eramo, the UVA Dean who became the unwitting villain of Rolling Stone’s story “A Rape on Campus,” has sued the magazine for $7.5 million.
Eramo’s lawsuit claims she was defamed by Rolling Stone and by author Sabrina Erdely. Eramo was the chief point of contact for anyone claiming to be a victim of sexual assault. Part of Erdely’s piece was aimed at making that response look anemic and self-serving. As the complaint puts it, “Defendants‘ purpose in publishing the article was to weave a narrative that depicted the University of Virginia (UVA) as an institution that is indifferent to rape on campus, and more concerned with protecting its reputation than with assisting victims of sexual assault.”
The complaint states, “Erdely and Rolling Stone cast Dean Eramo, who met with and counseled Jackie, as the chief villain of the story.” That narrative might have become a given if the story of the alleged victim, Jackie, hadn’t completely fallen apart thanks to some follow-up reporting by other news outlets.
The magazine’s story of a gang-rape at a UVA frat house was an international sensation when it was published in November, and prompted vandalism against the fraternity where the rape supposedly took place. (It later turned out there had been no party at the house the night of the alleged rape, a fact Erdely and Rolling Stone failed to check.)
The frat house was not the only target of the piece. The legal complaint states, “Dean Eramo received a wave of emails and letters from people across the county attacking her as among other things, ‘evil,’ a ‘wretched rape apologist,’ and ‘a disgusting, worthless piece of trash.'”
Questions began to circulate about the story’s accuracy. Those questions were answered thanks to some excellent reporting by T. Rees Shapiro at the Washington Post. Shapiro tracked down the three friends who met alleged rape victim Jackie the night of the attack and learned that their stories varied significantly from the one Jackie had given to Erdely. More revelations followed, all of which undercut Jackie’s credibility. Within a few week, Rolling Stone was forced to retract the entire story saying it could no longer stand behind Jackie’s account.
Eramo’s complaint makes clear that the publication of “A Rape on Campus” was about two things: Filling in blanks on a preconceived narrative about rape culture and, for Rolling Stone, money. The complaint blasts Sabrina Erdely as, “a wanton journalist… writing an article that fulfilled her preconceived narrative about the victimization of women on American college campuses.” It describes Rolling Stone as, “a malicious publisher who was more concerned about selling magazines to boost the economic bottom line for its faltering magazine, than… discovering the truth.”
Later on the complaint circles back to what it describes as an “epic failure of journalism”:
Erdely and Rolling Stone’s epic failure of journalism was the result of biased, agenda-driven reporting, repeated failures to heed a multitude of red flags indicating that Jackie was not a credible source, willful inaction that was the product of deliberate decisions not to acquire knowledge of facts that would contradict Jackie’s claims, a purposeful avoidance of the truth, and an utter failure to investigate the accuracy of Jackie’s claims despite a high degree of awareness on the part of Rolling Stone and Erdely that they were probably false.
The complaint offers a list of angry messages Dean Eramo received from people who read the article and perceived her as a villain (Note that this is only about half of the list contained in the complaint):
For the six separate counts of defamation Dean Eramo says she suffered, she asks for compensatory damages of $7.5 million, punitive damages of $350,000, plus the costs of her attorney’s fees.