After 11 days of evidence, plaintiff Nicole Eramo rested her case against Rolling Stone October 28– but not before testimony from magazine founder Jann Wenner raised stakes and eyebrows in this $7.5 million libel case.
“We have never retracted the whole article– and don’t intend to,” declared the magazine owner in a videotaped deposition played for the jury in federal court.
In the video, Rolling’s Stone’s colorful leader appeared relaxed enough to occasionally put his boots on the table and gesticulate. And curse– as when discussing an editor’s note that began the process of disavowing the 2014 story of a vicious gang rape of a woman named Jackie at the University of Virginia.
“Who wants to post something that’s, ‘Oops, we fucked up so bad’?” asked Wenner.
Dressed in a sage green jacket over an open-collared sport shirt, Wenner acknowledged the flavorful writing style and point-of-view journalism that have become Rolling Stone hallmarks, but said there was nothing casual about Rolling Stone’s approach to reporting and fact-checking. Even in this case.
“I think we were the the victim of one of these rare, once-in-a-lifetime things that nobody in journalism can protect themselves against, no matter how hard they try,” said Wenner.
The evidence has shown that Rolling Stone, to accommodate Jackie, avoided pressing its protagonist for the full name of the alleged rape ring-leader and failed to contact the three friends who comforted her the night of her claimed attack.
“We had virtually 50 years of a perfect record in the most extreme stories– highly reported, difficult, complex stories with a lot of controversy,” said Wenner. “And all of our systems worked.”
As it turned out, investigations by journalists and by the Charlottesville Police Department refuted practically every aspect of Jackie’s story, and previous trial testimony showed that the trio of friends could have done so– if only the reporter had asked. So Wenner apologized to Eramo– in his own way.
“To the extent that we have caused you damage, and obviously we have– the fact that we’re here– I’m very, very sorry,” said Wenner. A moment later, he said, “Believe me, I’ve suffered as much as you have.”
There were other moments. For instance, Wenner accused the New York Observer of manufacturing a quotation until a lawyer showed him he’d sent the words via email. But it was his claim that he didn’t retract the whole story that made Friday afternoon headlines.
“It was a full retraction of our support of all that Jackie stuff,” Wenner explained.
When pressed to explain how a reader– given Rolling Stone’s attribution errors– could ascertain which pieces of the 9,000-word story came from Jackie, Wenner conceded that he didn’t know.
“I haven’t read it in quite a while.”
Wenner’s partial retraction stance puts him squarely on the side of the defense’s theory of the case: that for all its faults and errors, Rolling Stone’s story rendered a public service by showing how UVA improperly handled sexual assault reports, an assertion validated several months later by the civil rights office of the U.S. Department of Education.
“We were not retracting the fundamentals to that story,” Wenner testified. “We’re not retracting what we had to say about the overall issue of rape on campus.”
After Wenner’s testimony, Judge Glen Conrad seemed to find Wenner refreshingly “unfiltered,” but said the partial-retraction comments kept alive the plaintiff’s allegation that Rolling Stone continued to publish defamatory statements about Eramo.
Another Friday witness– again appearing on video– included UVA’s VP for student affairs, Pat Lampkin, who declined to specify why she blocked Rolling Stone from interviewing Eramo. The magazine’s digital director, Alvin Ling, testified on video that the online version of story got 2.4 million unique visitors before the first editor’s note went up– and other 285,000 uniques before it was taken down in April 2015.
The final witness for the plaintiff– again on video– was Will Dana, the managing editor sacked in the wake of the debacle. Even after acknowledging widespread “fabrications” from Jackie, he declined to malign her.
“I feel bad for what this girl has gone through since the story came out,” said Dana. “I will give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that she has been victimized in some way.”