Rare Legal Victory against Journalistic Malpractice

Virtually everyone (and everyone I know, hopefully) agrees that rape is evil, and that opposing it is a virtuous cause. There is no place for rape or other sexual abuse in civilized society. Yet in their fervid efforts to support this cause, Rolling Stone “journalists” and their editors blinded themselves to their own zealotry and committed egregious malpractice by failing to verify a collegiate gang-rape story — thereby violating one of the foundational tenets of true journalism.

I will not link to a copy of the original story since it was bogus. Instead here is Rolling Stone’s retraction, and a long, detailed Columbia Journalism Review investigation commissioned by Rolling Stone.

False accusations of rape (and of indifference to it) are not only unhelpful to a good cause, they destroy reputations and lives. I have spoken with men who have been exonerated as well as falsely accused without trial, and the damage done cannot be undone with a mere apology or the slap of a gavel. The fight against wrong accusations should be every bit as rigorous as against the crime itself. The cause of stopping rape deserves no less than such diligence and devotion to honesty.

Fair-use excerpt from this story by the Washington Post:

    A federal court jury decided Friday that a Rolling Stone journalist defamed a former University of Virginia associate dean in a 2014 magazine article about sexual assault on campus that included a debunked account of a fraternity gang rape.

    The 10-member jury concluded that the Rolling Stone reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, was responsible for defamation, with actual malice, in the case brought by Nicole Eramo, a U-Va. administrator who oversaw sexual violence cases at the time of the article’s publication. The jury also found the magazine and its parent company, Wenner Media, responsible for defaming Eramo, who has said her life’s work helping sexual assault victims was devastated as a result of Rolling Stone’s article and its aftermath.

I applaud this civil verdict and hope it sets an example, motivating reporters and their bosses to SLOW DOWN and be more careful to get the story right before publishing it. If not, that is why we have a civil court system, for remediating real damages such as this, and not for the greedy, frivolous bullcrap so endemic to modern tort litigation (what is known likely is dwarfed by what isn’t).

Rolling Stone isn’t free of litigation yet either; a $25 million suit by the fraternity still is slogging through the civil system. May that succeed too. As the suit notes, “The story was simply too tempting, too sensational, to let facts get in the way.” Yes, in this case, the piling-on is quite warranted.

Finally, yes, I am fully aware of the potentially and similarly beneficial impacts on overzealous reporting of the Bollea (Hulk Hogan) v. Gawker verdict and recent settlement. However, I’m giving it limited attention because I never considered Gawker — a shameless fountain of gossip, shock-and-awe titillation and sleaze-peddling — to have represented anything even remotely resembling “journalism”. Instead Gawker was the journalistic equivalent to a horrid infestation of maggots and cockroaches, and its demise is to be celebrated.


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