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Jury Finds 'Rolling Stone,' Reporter Liable For Damages In Rape Allegation Story

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Rolling Stone magazine has lost a defamation case, and the consequences could be costly. A federal court in Virginia yesterday found Rolling Stone, its reporter and its parent company all liable for defamation over a cover story about a campus rape at the University of Virginia. The reporter and her editors failed to take basic steps to confirm the key incident at the heart of the article. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik has been covering this case for a couple of years. He joins us from New York. David, thanks for being with us.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Of course.

SIMON: I think a lot of people kind of wonder when they hear the news - could this verdict do to Rollingstone what the Hulk Hogan verdict did to Gawker?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, it's certainly likely to be a significant financial blow. The dean at the University of Virginia who filed suit in this case was seeking more than $7 million. That's not in the same neighborhood as the $140 million that Hulk Hogan got and took down, essentially, Gawker - forced its sale - the closing of the site itself, Gawker. In this case, I think that you can see the repercussions in that way. Jann Wenner, the owner of Wenner Media, the parent company of Rolling Stone, sold off a 49 percent stake in the magazine to the son of a Chinese billionaire, both because the industry's been tough on magazines, but because of this case. And let's not forget the fraternity at which the supposed gang rape that was depicted in the story, which never occurred, also has a lawsuit pending against the magazine. So, you know, there could be more consequences to come.

SIMON: Where did this story fail, looking back at it?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, there was a complete breakdown in the reporting process and the editing process, but then there was another layer, as well. The breakdown was that the reporter was so believing of the account of a gang rape and so concerned about the larger issue of campus rape and so worried about the victim that she believed to be at the core of this that she heeded the victim's pleas not to try to verify this with the purported assailants who didn't exist, with her friends who, turned out, had a very different version of what they had been told by her contemporaneously in that moment that she said she had been gang raped. These were things that reporter has to do. And really importantly, these are things editors have to do - say, you know, we're not going to do that.

But separately, the story was presented in a cinematic narrative as though each fact were pinned down, as though each detail were fact, in a way that the reader had no understanding that this was one person's account, but instead thought, well, they must have done a 360 immersion reporting to really own this story. And that was a complete lack of transparency on Rolling Stones' part. I think part of it's desire to present something in a compelling way and make its point, but a complete loss of journalistic responsibility.

SIMON: What does a verdict do like this to other, if I might put it this way, better journalists? Do they think, oh, that could happen to me, or do they think that could never happen?

FOLKENFLIK: They think both. I've talked to reporters who said, you know what? When you really care about somebody who's been terribly victimized, you - there are moments where you - as a human, you connect, and you try to protect them. And this means you have to redouble and resist at times - that maybe it is protecting the person, saying, perhaps you're not ready for me to report this story if you're not ready for me to do basic reporting on it. And that's OK, but, you know, let's see when you're going to be comfortable with that.

I also think there are a lot of people who say, you know, we've got to listen. Questions were raised after the story was originally posted online. Rolling Stone ultimately - you know, initially defended it stoutly. Ultimately said, hey, you know, there may have been steps we should have taken, but we believe in this story. They posted this - kept the story posted online. They put the story in the print magazine. And that was the reason the jury said, you know what? Not only the reporter, but the magazine has defamed Dean Nicole Eramo at the University of Virginia.

SIMON: NPR's David Folkenflik, thanks so much for being with us.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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