The final Thursday witness for the plaintiff in the $7.5 million libel trial against Rolling Stone was Sara Surface. A friend to Jackie, Surface seemed to have a purpose in alleging that reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely had prejudged plaintiff Nicole Eramo.
“She disregarded me because I didn’t fit the narrative,” said Surface.
An email released during the case’s discovery phase showed that Erdely viewed Surface not as a true activist, but as a “covert mouthpiece for the administration,” something Surface denied.
“If she had listened to my personal experiences and feelings,” the testy former student testified, “maybe she wouldn’t be getting sued now.”
The bulk of the testimony, however, was the second day of Rolling Stone’s deputy managing editor Sean Woods being confronted by plaintiff’s counsel Libby Locke.
In the morning, Locke asked Woods and the jurors to look at their phones to contrast text messages with the screen shots Jackie provided of text messages by two other alleged victims. Locke said it seemed suspicious since the name “Jackie”– as if she were the sender– shouldn’t be at the top of the screenshots.
Amid laughter from Woods and the jurors, several pointing out that phones weren’t allowed in the federal courtroom, Locke turned to the judge.
“Well, this isn’t going very well, Your Honor.”
Locked shifted course to emails such as the one on October 23 when Erdely opens with an F-bomb expletive to tell her editor the protagonist Jackie is in “full freakout mode.” But Woods downplayed the prospect of a pulling-out protagonist.
“This happens all the time,” said Woods.
As late as November 3, Erdely emailed, Jackie had gone silent. But Woods says he remained calm.
“I had other articles I could have run,” he explained.
Once Jackie resumed communications, there were problems with the story. Woods emailed Erdely to urge some confirmation– beyond Jackie– about two other women allegedly raped in the Phi Psi house.
“I wish I had better sourcing for a lot of the Jackie stuff,” Woods replied. “A lot right now is resting on Jackie’s say-so, including the entire lede.”
Letting Jackie serve as the source not only for her now-disproven tale of fraternity house gang rape but for quotations from allegedly callous friends prompted Locke to blister that lede.
“It misled readers, didn’t it?” demanded Locke.
“It did,” admitted Woods.
Locke asked the witness to admit the story lacked corroboration.
“I thought we had a lot of corroboration,” Woods testified, “but here we are.”
“Here we are,” the lawyer repeated.
On questioning from the defense, Woods pointed to an array of official-sounding statements that seemed to bolster Jackie’s tale. There was a UVA administrator named Emily Renda who testified about it under oath to the U.S. Congress. There were the those real-looking text messages. And even the UVA president personally confirmed to Erdely that the fraternity was under investigation.
Yet Woods constantly conceded mistakes– particularly when reminded that he assured a inquiring reporter that Rolling Stone verified both the existence and the identity of the alleged rapists.
“Yeah, I stepped over the line,” admitted Woods. “And I deeply regret it.”
At one point, Locke spoke of another potential smoking gun. Three days after publicly disavowing the story online, Woods reached out to Jackie with a voicemail that noted, in part, “we’re standing by the story.”
“It’s like the stages of grief,” Woods explained. “I was in denial.”
Over the course of the interrogation, Woods admitted reporting, sourcing, editing and attribution errors– including giving up on attempts to reach the rape ringleader or the trio of supposedly rape-condoning friends.
“We did debate these things,” said Woods. “We just came to the wrong conclusions.”