Rolling Stone co-founder and publisher Jann Wenner has questioned his own magazine’s decision to retract in full its now-discredited “A Rape on Campus” article by Sabrina Erdely.
A video deposition of Wenner was played in federal court on Friday, the 10th day of former University of Virginia dean Nicole Eramo’s defamation lawsuit against Rolling Stone claiming that the 2014 article portrayed her as indifferent to sexual assault on campus, particularly the alleged gang rape of a student named Jackie.
The magazine retracted the article in April 2015, after the Columbia University Journalism School wrote a 12,000-word report outlining its flaws and called the story a “failure of journalism.”
Wenner said the magazine issued a “full retraction for all the Jackie stuff in that article,” but stood by the rest of the story “personally, professionally, and on behalf of the magazine,” according to local reports. In Erdely’s testimony last week, she too stood by “everything I wrote… except for anything that came from Jackie.”
“We are deeply committed to factual accuracy,” Wenner said. “We did everything reasonable, appropriate, up to the highest standards.”
He insisted that then-managing editor Will Dana’s retraction was “inaccurate… We do not retract the whole story,” and that the magazine’s biggest mistake was not corroborating Jackie’s account with her alleged attackers.
Indeed, had Erdely and her editors even attempted to do so, they would likely have arrived at a similar conclusion as Charlottesville police did after a five-month investigation: that there was no party at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity on Sept. 28, 2012, the night that Jackie claimed she was brutally raped by eight men; and that they found no evidence that Jackie was assaulted at Phi Kappa Psi or any other fraternity at UVA.
“We screwed up. Bring it on. We suffered,” Wenner said, before going on to apologize to Eramo. “It was never meant to happen this way to you. And believe me, I’ve suffered as much as you have. But please, my sympathies.”
Dana’s testimony on Friday implied that he and Wenner were at loggerheads over the story: He said it was Wenner’s decision to keep the article up on Rolling Stone’s website, with an editor’s note from Dana, while the story was being reviewed by the Columbia Journalism School.
When pressed about Erdely’s pitch, he said he was intrigued because campus sexual assault was “being discussed a lot in media and society,” and that the original story idea was to report one sexual assault case on a college campus and investigate how the administration responded to that case.
Earlier this week, the jury heard a deposition from Jackie herself, who occasionally contradicted her own testimony: At one point she suggested Rolling Stone had “skewed” her words, then later said she stood by the account she gave the magazine and “believed it to be true at the time.”
When pressed as to whether she still believed it was true, Jackie replied that she suffered from memory loss as a result of trauma from the alleged assault and “believed it was true but some details of my assault—I have PTSD and it’s foggy.”
The court also saw video depositions from two former friends of Jackie, Kathryn Hendley and Ryan Duffin, who were quoted under pseudonyms in the article and were not contacted by Erdely until after its publication.
Hendley, known as “Cindy” in the article, said she sympathized with Erdely (“I know what it’s like to be lied to by Jackie”), while Duffin, aka “Randall,” also said that he believed Erdely acted with good faith based on the information she had.
Alexandria Pinkleton, a student activist who knew Jackie’s story and is one of few sources whose full name was used in the story, reportedly testified that she was “offended” by how Erdely portrayed her in the article, particularly her quote that “hot girls” can get into fraternities at UVA.
She said she participated because she was critical of how the administration handled sexual assault, but “Dean Eramo is not part of that.” She also testified that she was concerned about how Erdely would portray Eramo in the article.
She said she encouraged Jackie’s participation in the story “because it’s important to control your story,” and that she never questioned Jackie. “I just validated what she said. That’s what advocates do.”
Allen Groves, UVA’s dean of students, also said he believed Jackie and was intent on “putting [Jackie’s alleged attackers] in jail and shutting down the frat”—until the Rolling Stone article came out.
Groves admitted that the university was under scrutiny for its handling of sexual assault, and that the Office of Civil Rights had begun investigating UVA for violating Title IX laws in April 2011. When Erdely approached Eramo for an interview, Groves expressed concern to Eramo that the Rolling Stone story would be a “hatchet job.” Meanwhile, the university was considering publishing a similar story about campus sexual assault in its alumni magazine, but ultimately decided not to run it.
Eramo’s team rested its case on Friday afternoon. The jury will hear arguments from the defense on Monday.