CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia — The reporter at the center of a libel case arising from her Rolling Stone story about campus rape took the stand in her own defense Wednesday as attorneys tried to show she wrote her article to fit a preconceived narrative.
The reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, testified for less than an hour before court adjourned for the day in the case. Erdely and Rolling Stone are accused of libeling UVA administrator Nicole Eramo, who was a prominent figure in Erdely’s 2014 story “A Rape on Campus.” The story told of a woman named Jackie who said she was raped by several men at a UVA fraternity house in September 2012.
Libby Locke, a lawyer for Eramo, began laying out evidence Wednesday to show that Erdely had a predetermined narrative in mind when she began reporting in Charlottesville. Erdely wrote in her notes she was looking into “institutional indifference,” for example, and Locke drew attention to previous articles by Erdely for Rolling Stone about sexual assaults being mishandled by the Catholic church and in the military. One email that Erdely sent to a potential source for the campus rape story included a link to her military rape article and said she was “hoping to look into colleges much in the same way.”
Erdely testified she was simply trying to “signal to them that I have written these kinds of stories before” and understands reporting on sexual violence.
Eramo was on the stand earlier in the day. Her testimony showed that university officials became concerned about public perception of the school when they learned a Rolling Stone reporter was looking into allegations of a gang rape at a fraternity.
Cross-examination by Rolling Stone’s defense attorney Elizabeth McNamara revealed that UVA officials suggested Phi Kappa Psi officials investigate Jackie’s allegations upon learning Erdely was interviewing students on campus. According to documents shown to jurors, UVA officials warned Phi Psi that Erdely was poking around, and “seems poised to report on this issue,” referring to assault allegations at the frat, and that the reporter would connect the allegations to the 1984 gang rape of Liz Seccuro at their house.
UVA officials called a meeting with a representative from Phi Psi’s national office on Sept. 17, 2014, and shared information about Jackie’s allegations without revealing her name. The Phi Psi national rep then planned to meet with chapter leadership that evening, an internal memo showed. On Sept. 30, the fraternity told Eramo that no current members “came forward with any additional information,” so they were unable to verify the allegations from the chapter’s side.
Around the same time, Jackie and a friend of hers involved in survivor advocacy on campus met with Eramo. Rolling Stone’s attorney said Eramo told the students in that meeting, “We’re flat-out fucked.”
“I may have said that,” Eramo said on the stand. The statement, Eramo explained, would’ve been referring not just to how Rolling Stone’s article might be taken by the public, but also to the disappearance of UVA student Hannah Graham, which the administration was convinced “was not going to end well,” Eramo added.
Emily Renda, who worked closely with Eramo at the time, also expressed to Eramo she was worried about Erdely potentially lampooning the university’s handling of these cases. In video testimony played in court Wednesday, Renda said she and Eramo thought it would not be a “great idea” if Erdely spoke with Phi Psi about Jackie’s allegation because it could compromise a potential criminal investigation.
Eramo began to fear that the fraternity was going to try to turn the scrutiny onto her regarding Jackie’s case when the Rolling Stone article hit. In October, Eramo learned the UVA Phi Psi chapter had hired a local public relations consultant in anticipation of the Rolling Stone piece.
The next month, Eramo texted two UVA students involved in advocacy work that “after a convo last night seems the fraternity is planning to throw me under the bus. Awesome.” Eramo confessed to the same two students in a subsequent Nov. 4 text, “I should have conducted an investigation due to the public safety risk despite the wishes of the survivor.”
Rolling Stone has argued they did not defame Eramo by stating that the university did nothing when learning of gang rape allegations at the frat, because there wasn’t a full university investigation or campuswide warning about the reports. Eramo’s lawyers have laid out in court documents and testimony that she frequently worked with Jackie, attempting to get her to report the case to police, something that the article intentionally omitted.
A 2015 Charlottesville police investigation later found no evidence to corroborate Jackie’s account of a gang rape at Phi Psi. The fraternity is currently suing Rolling Stone in a local court for $25 million for defamation. The jury trial for the Phi Psi suit is scheduled for October 2017.
Erdely’s testimony resumes Thursday.
Tyler Kingkade is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York City.
Contact Tyler Kingkade at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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