“I found her to be very credible,” said the reporter on the podcast. “I put her story through the wringer.”
This audio about “Jackie,” the now-discredited protagonist of a once-blockbuster magazine article was played for jurors, as the plaintiff’s attorney tried to crush the credibility of reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely on Day Four of the $7.5 million libel suit filed by former UVA dean Nicole Eramo.
“I spoke to virtually all of her friends to find out what she told them at various points,” continued the Slate podcast published on Thanksgiving Day in 2014, during arguably the greatest days of Erdely’s journalism career.
It was just eight days after the release of “A Rape on Campus,” a now-retracted story Erdely penned for Rolling Stone. And the words from the podcast hung over the courtroom, as plaintiff’s attorney Libby Locke attempted to demolish them.
Using Erdely’s own interview notes, Locke got Erdely to concede that Jackie’s roommate Rachel Soltis recalled that Jackie described her violation as a five-man oral assault that included penetration with a broken beer bottle. The magazine, however, depicted a seven-man rape with an intact beer bottle.
“Yeah, the details changed over time as she came to terms with the rape, which is typical of trauma survivors,” Erdely explained.
Locke pointed to another friend who, Erdely’s notes indicate, said Jackie claimed she’d been violated with a coat hanger.
“The important thing to me,” Erdely shot back, “was that she was verifying that she had been raped with a foreign object.”
There was one moment when Locke may have thought she’d caught Erdely with another inconsistency, a discussion of the victim wearing a red dress in one account and then a blue dress in the roommate’s account.
“She was making a joke,” said Erdely. “She’s referring to the Monica Lewinsky scandal.”
Locke’s questions suggested that allegations of scars on Jackie’s back and arms provided another pile of bogus information.
“I asked to see the scars on her back,” Erdely said in her own notes, as shown on two large video monitors. “Her boyfriend hadn’t seen them, but it had been two years, so I accepted the explanation that they had faded. In the dim light I see nothing.”
The notes show that Jackie then offers, “I can wear something tomorrow to show them.”
The jurors heard audio of a dinner interview in which Jackie says, “All of my friends are like, ‘What are those?’ And I’m like, ‘Those are from September 28.”
Erdely would later tell Washington Post journalist Paul Farhi: “Jackie showed me the scars that she said she’d suffered the night of her attack.”
Erdely refused to answer Farhi’s questions about whether she knew the attacker’s name and whether she’d interviewed him. He said it would be journalistic “malpractice” if she hadn’t.
“You’re getting sidetracked,” she chastised Farhi in a November 30 e-mail exchange in which she said the main point of her article was the culture and a UVA administration “which chose not to act on her allegations in any way.”
Around the same time, however, the notes show Erdely was losing confidence in Jackie and e-mailed Jackie to point out that none of her friends had seen the scars.
Also at that dinner interview according to a transcript put on the screen, Jackie tells the table that the gang rape gave her syphilis, something that catches her boyfriend off guard.
“I don’t have it any more,” Jackie reassures him.
It wasn’t the last time Jackie carried a claim about syphilis. She alleged that one of her three best friends—the ones who comforted her after the alleged gang rape—contracted the disease after sleeping with 40 guys.
“You never challenged her,” says Locke.
“Yes,” replies a quietly weeping Erdely, “to my great regret.”
That was the friend Erdely put in the story under the pseudonym Cindy, a “self-described hookup queen” who frets that Jackie should remain silent to avoid being “the girl who cried rape,” adding that they’d “never be allowed into any frat party again.”
After Locke pressed Erdely to admit that she waited until after the article’s publication to grill Jackie on the inconsistencies, the judge interjected a question of his own: Who asked Erdely to re-report.
“Jann Wenner,” was her answer.
The founder-owner of the rock/culture magazine has not been attending trial, but his magazine’s future may hang in the balance if his recent decision to sell a 49 percent stake is any indication.
Erdely was to be one of the magazine’s stars. She revealed Thursday that after writing stories for Rolling Stone for several years, this one was to be her first under a new contract that would have paid her $300,000 for seven stories over the course of two years.
During a discussion of the days in late August when Jackie allegedly stopped replying to the reporter’s texts and e-mails, Locke begins reading from one e-mail shown on a screen. When she gets to Jackie’s last name, plainly visible to the gallery, the lawyer suddenly halts and shouts to a nearby technician: “If we could take that down, please, off the screen.”
Later, the technician dims the gallery screens again when a photograph appears of Jackie’s purported facial injuries from an incident—disputed by the Charlottesville Police Department—in which Jackie was allegedly injured by a thrown bottle.
“Keeping her identity confidential is important,” said Judge Glen Conrad, to encourage “other victims” to come forward. How Jackie, now with multiple false accounts, convinced a judge as well as both sides of this litigation that she’s a “victim” has yet to be explained.
Devastatingly, Locke produced interview audio in which Erdely mentions the photo to Jackie and says the supposed facial injuries resemble “something smeared,” a substance, the reporter said, “looked like face paint.”
In response, Erdely downplayed the statement as merely a manifestion of alleged abrasions that were “so bright.”
In early November, as the article was getting vetted, an e-mail from proofreader Elizabeth Garber-Paul asked if Erdely had received a last name or comment from the alleged rape ringleader.
She e-mailed back: “Unfortunately, the answer is no and no.”
Just a week or two earlier, late October, Jackie was threatening to pull out of the story, according to texts from Jackie’s friend Alex Pinkleton.
“I need to be clear about this,” Erdely texted back, “there’s no pulling the plug at this point—the article is moving forward.”
It was October 24 when Erdely e-mailed her editor, Sean Woods: “Fuck. Jackie is in full freakout mode right now.”
The next day, Erdely turned on the charm in an e-mail to Jackie: “You’re about to make a difference. I know you can do this Jackie. You’re stronger than you give yourself credit for. Give yourself a hug. Everything is going to work out fine.”
A separate Erdely email to Rolling Stone’s photo editor noted that “Jackie is in not-great mental shape right now.”
Didn’t Erdely realize that Jackie had PTSD? Locke demanded.
“I’m not a doctor,” replied Erdely. “I have no qualms about building my lede around someone who is emotionally fragile.”
But wasn’t this a mistake in this instance, Locke demanded.
“It wasn’t a mistake to rely on someone [so] emotionally fragile,” Erdely said softly on the witness stand, as her voice broke and tears flowed in an otherwise silent courtroom. “It was a mistake to rely on someone who was intent to deceive me.”
Locke pointed out that Eramo had brought police to speak with Jackie, but later let that get removed from an early draft of the story. “A reader would have no idea that Dean Eramo took Jackie to meet with the police.”
“This article was not about how the university handles bottle incidents,” said Erdely. “It was about how the university handles sexual assaults.”
At issue was the “rape school” quotation attributed to Eramo, something that Erdely says, “Jackie told me twice, and I believed her. “
And Erdely conceded she had not strenuously attempted to verify—though she points out that she learned that her planned meeting with Eramo was cancelled as she was boarding a plane from Philadelphia to Charlottesville.
“UVA made it very clear,” testified Erdely, “that I was going to have no access to Nicole Eramo.”
Erdely also unashamedly continued to criticize the university’s policy for laying out three judicial choices for rape victims, an array that the reporter contends harms justice.
“Victim choice left Jackie, as it leaves many other victims,” said Erdely, “paralyzed.”
Locke read the second editor’s note which apologized to everyone “damaged” by the story and repeatedly asked Erdely whether Eramo had been damaged. Even after her lawyer, Scott Sexton, objected, the judge allowed the question.
“I’m sure that her feelings were hurt,” was the most Erdely would offer, well aware, as her lawyer pointed out, that “damages” has a legal meaning in a libel trial.
Erdely acknowledged the hate mail Eramo received but pointed out Eramo subsequently received a pay raise and ascribed Eramo’s removal from working with students to being found liable of violations of Title IX, the law meant to protect women on campuses. Pressed whether she stands by the story, Erdely didn’t hesitate.
“I stand by everything in the article that did not come from Jackie.”
Updated October 24: Eramo filed a motion October 17– the first day of trial– withdrawing her demand for $350,000 in punitive damages, bringing the monetary awards she wants down to $7.5 million.