In the scramble to publish, Will Dana said he operated under the assumption that Rosen had reviewed the manuscript for libel. She hadn’t, and Dana barely knew the new lawyer, Natalie Krodel. Meanwhile, Dana was evidently unaware of Erdely’s decision to steer clear of the men “Jackie” implicated in a rape, and he never inquired about it. Consequently, Rolling Stone would simply publish her account without contacting them. The practice of shielding a rape victim from undue trauma by her attackers was not unheard of, but Rolling Stone was convinced to forgo due diligence and had no way of knowing if the story was true, other than Jackie’s own words and the advocacy of the reporter. Rolling Stone’s fact-checking department was still a largely female institution as well, which may have further blunted the skepticism of male editors reluctant to cast doubt on a female rape victim.
This continues the media party line that the problem with “A Rape on Campus” was not that it was a farrago of fantasy and hate from the get-go, but that there was negligence regarding a technical but subtly important aspect of proper journalistic methodology. Rolling Stone did everything right except they forgot one item on the checklist of proper procedure.
In reality, “A Rape on Campus” was self-evidently absurd with its seven fraternity boys risking very personal parts of themselves to gang rape a coed in the dark for three hours on top of a smashed glass coffee table.
Atop this rickety foundation, Rolling Stone rested a weighty narrative, publishing the name of the fraternity and painting an associate dean of the University of Virginia, Nicole Eramo, as insensitive to rape victims (and, indeed, a federal report later said she had, in certain cases, violated Title IX, the law requiring public institutions to respond to sexual assault claims). Wenner Media’s associate lawyer was convinced the source was credible. Jann Wenner read the story and thought it was great. Indeed, he was so pleased he ordered a follow-up story on the bad reputation of the fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi. …
All of this would have been eminently noble had it been correct.
But the story was obviously absurd, so extreme malice toward the victims of the libel (fraternity boys, Southerners, blond gentile students, staffers of Jefferson’s Nazi-like university, etc.) is the only explanation for the extreme negligence of assuming that real world people behave like that.
And it would take dozens of newspaper reports and a police investigation before Wenner finally admitted defeat. When the Columbia report was finished in the spring of 2015, Wenner read it and evinced surprise, as if he had no idea how bad it really was. He had just returned from Sun Valley. “How could you not confront the f—ing guy you’re accusing?” Wenner asked, incredulous. The report painted a grim portrait of baffling negligence. Wenner was ridiculed for continuing to blame “Jackie” rather than his own editorial system.
Jackie Coakley is a sociopathic liar. On the other hand, she’s childish and not terribly bright. In a recorded conversation of the two, Coakley is the dominant personality, glibly telling Erdely whatever she wants to hear. But what Erdely (and, apparently, the entire staff at Rolling Stone, and a large fraction of the admiring press corps that celebrated Erdely’s article for a couple of weeks) wants to hear is driven by hate, and that’s the key to this piece of history.
He was blasted on Twitter and called out by Jon Stewart (cover of Rolling Stone, October 2004 and September 2011) for failing to fire everybody involved. “That kind of hit me in the gut,” said Wenner.
Will Dana had offered to quit, but Wenner wouldn’t hear of it. He was loyal to his staff, but he was also legally prudent. The next month, the former university dean filed a $7.5 million libel lawsuit against Rolling Stone, Wenner Media, and Sabrina Erdely, which was followed by a defamation suit from three Phi Kappa Psi members and later by a lawsuit for $25 million from the fraternity itself. Everything was actionable, and they had to stick together. …
In the spring of 2016, Wenner gave a videotaped testimony in Manhattan for the Nicole Eramo trial. With his shirt rakishly open, he propped his feet on the table and declared that, excepting the botched rape anecdote, he stood by the article “personally, professionally, and on behalf of the magazine.” Wenner seemed determined to isolate Rolling Stone’s bad reporting from the accurate parts of the story that maligned Eramo. Will Dana, he insisted, had overstepped his boundaries in fully retracting the story after the Columbia report (a claim that was untrue according to everybody involved). At one point, Wenner looked directly at the woman who was suing him and said, “I’m very, very sorry. Believe me, I’ve suffered as much as you have.”
It turned out to be a costly line.
The jury awarded UVA staffer Nicole Eramo about $3 million, despite the judge imposing a difficult burden on the plaintiff.
Why did Rolling Stone libel Eramo, the lady in charge of listening to coeds’ complaints of sexual assault? Because that was the only way to make sense out of Coakley’s jumble of lies.
Erdely decided that Eramo had to be a sonderkommando on the side of the White Male Republican Patriarchy to try to make sense out of Jackie Coakley’s nonsensical stories.
In reality, Eramo knew Coakley too well. Eramo repeatedly told her she could talk to the police if she wanted to, but Coakley had enough animal cunning to know that was a bad idea. So she just would hang out in Eramo’s office and tell her lies, like that a fraternity boy had thrown glass beer bottle and hit her in the face on the busiest corner in Charlottesville’s nightlife district.
Erdely totally fell for this additional absurdity, so to make sense out of Eramo’s ho-hum reaction to this Second Night of Broken Glass for her article, she had to make Eramo into this sinister agent of the Anti-Woman Republican Power Structure.
But Jackie thought Dean Eramo was super neat! So a couple of days after Erdely’s article came out, Jackie signed a public letter about how swell Dean Eramo was.
Amusingly, this didn’t induce doubts in the many journalists who were praising Erdely’s story at the time.
Of course, Occam’s Razor would suggest the truth: that Coakley just made up all the Night of Broken Glass incidents and really amped them up when she ran into Erdely, who ate up and tried to rationalize whatever Jackie’s tiny brain ginned up to please Erdely’s prejudices.
We need a term like Cultural Conspiracy Theorizing for the kind of mainstream conventional wisdom displayed by Erdely in libeling Eramo. It’s not necessarily an all-out conspiracy with plotters meeting in parking garages at midnight, but it’s a cultural conspiracy where bureaucrats like Eramo know the White Male Power Structure wants them to silence truthtellers like Jackie.