A federal jury found Rolling Stone liable for defamation, and Sabrina Rubin Erdely for actual malice, but their earlier malice cost the life of an innocent priest.
At some point before or after reading this post, pay a visit to “The Lying, Scheming Altar Boy on the Cover of Newsweek.” Published in February, 2016, it is one of the most widely read and shared posts on These Stone Walls. Some readers found it infuriating. Others enlightening. But nearly all readers were shocked to learn of this story from only one humble little “new media” blog while all the once trustworthy “old media” (with the striking exception of Newsweek) blatantly ignored it.
I’ll explain why they ignored it in a moment, but I warn you in advance, the answer isn’t pretty. I reveal this true account only on a “need to know” basis – as in, “You need to know.” Before you spend another dime on a news media subscription under the guise of being kept informed, you need to know.
In an article for Newsmax magazine (“Trump Taps Into Mass Distrust,” April 22, 2016), Catholic League President Bill Donohue cited a new poll by the Media Insight Project. It was a joint effort by the Associated Press and the American Press Institute, and the results did not go well for the political and media elite.
Respondents in the survey were asked to comment on how much confidence they have in various sectors of society. I found the results fascinating. The top five sources of public trust in America are the military, the scientific community, the U.S. Supreme Court, organized religion, and financial institutions.
At rock bottom on the barometer of public trust were the very news media platforms that launched the survey. Only six percent of Americans responded that they had a great deal of confidence in the press. Members of Congress followed close behind with an embarrassing four percent.
Bill Donohue, whose academic background includes a doctorate in sociology, reported that the two most common reasons cited for widespread public mistrust of the news media are inaccurate reporting and media bias. Donohue also cited other sources that give perspective to the media survey results. In 1985, a Pew Research Center poll found that 55 percent of Americans trust the news media to “get the facts straight.” By 2011, that figure dropped by more than half to only 25 percent. In the 1985 Pew survey, 45 percent of Americans judged the media to be biased. In 2011, that figure jumped to 63 percent.
THE CROCODILE TEARS OF A PREDATORY MEDIA
One of the clearest examples of why the media is no longer trusted can be found in an important story that became buried under all the recent election coverage. A few weeks before the election, Journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone magazine, testified under oath as a defendant in a $7.5 million lawsuit charging her with actual malice, and Rolling Stone with defamation. The lawsuit was filed by University of Virginia Administrator Nicole Eramo.
Two years earlier, Sabrina Rubin Erdely and Rolling Stone defamed Ms. Eramo and U-VA in “A Rape on Campus,” a notorious November, 2014, story. It was the shocking account of “Jackie” who claimed to be a victim of gang rape at a U-VA fraternity in 2012. The story helped launch a national debate about sexual assault on college campuses across the nation, and contributed to an atmosphere of moral panic. Draconian measures to limit the due process rights of any student so accused were set in place in response to the high profile account.
Erdely’s Rolling Stone account depicted U-VA administrators as having callous disregard for the pain and suffering of Jackie and, by extension, other victims of sexual assault. But when Erdely’s rolling stones gathered up their dirt and the dust settled on this story, a major problem slowly came to light.
Jackie’s story turned out to be a massive lie, and Erdely’s coverage of it a massive betrayal of journalistic standards. Erdely did no fact checking of her own. She just ran with the lurid and sensational account with no attempt at corroboration. In the defamation trial, Erdely drew upon the same script used by contingency lawyers against Catholic priests and bishops for two decades.
“It takes trauma victims some time to come forward with all the details,” said Erdely in dismissal of her callous disregard for the journalistic skepticism so many in the media have abandoned in favor of political correctness. It is the same necessary skepticism that journalist Joan Wypijewski described in “Oscar Hangover Special: Why ‘Spotlight’ Is a Terrible Film.”
I am haunted by the familiar ring of this story’s aftermath. Reading about Ms. Erdely’s agenda masked as journalism brought a loud and clear echo from my own trial as Judge Arthur Brennan instructed jurors to “disregard inconsistencies” in accuser Thomas Grover’s testimony.
And it recalled Keene, NH Detective James McLaughlin’s shady and unexplained coaching of accusers. In a 1994 police report, he described his response to my accusers’ inconsistencies and multiple versions of the story: “I gave them a copy of MacRae’s resume to help them with their dates.” Dates that repeatedly changed, and were off by years, not days or weeks or months.
“It’s not unusual,” Erdely explained when confronted on the witness stand about her response to the ever changing details and versions of Jackie’s account detailed in the Rolling Stone lawsuit. When Jackie changed aspects of her story, Erdely never questioned her credibility, never confronted her about the discrepancies. With streaming tears, the story and the wreckage left in its wake were all Jackie’s fault. “It was a mistake to rely on someone whose intent was to deceive me.”
The jury saw this differently. Rolling Stone was found to be liable for defamation, and Sabrina Rubin Erdely for actual malice. The bar for proving defamation and malice against a journalist is steep. A jury must conclude, as it did in this case, that a media venue published what it knew to be false, or did so with reckless disregard for the truth. It was only after a multi-million dollar judgment was rendered against Rolling Stone that Erdely was removed from its Contributing Editors listing in the December 2016 issue.
A MEDIA DOUBLE STANDARD: WHEN ERDELY’S JACKIE WAS BILLY
One can easily detect between the lines the rest of the news media’s discomfort with this story. Moriah Balingit took it on for The Washington Post in “Rolling Stone reporter says ‘Jackie deceived her about U-Va gang rape’” (October 20, 2016).
I commend Ms. Balingit for her truthful treatment of the story, but it’s a truth reported with carefully drawn limits. My strong suspicion is that the limits on truth were not those of the writer, but of The Washington Post. The focus of the account was on this one story, and not the standards and ethics of Sabrina Rubin Erdely. There is no reason to conclude that her compromised journalistic standards began with Jackie at U-VA.
A news media in pursuit of the whole truth instead of an agenda would look at Ms. Erdely’s past work as well, but they won’t. They won’t because doing so would require delving into another Rolling Stone debacle by Ms. Erdely. It’s a story that I have written and suggested at the top of this post: “The Lying, Scheming Altar Boy on the Cover of Newsweek.”
In that story, Ms. Erdely applied her “reckless disregard for truth” to the wildly inconsistent account of “Billy Doe” told in Rolling Stone on September 15, 2011 with the title, “The Catholic Church’s Secret Sex-Crime Files.” It was a clear example of a writer’s preference for shock value over truth.
This time Ms. Erdely’s disregard for journalistic standards cost Father Charles Engelhardt – a good man and good priest – his life. He died chained to a bed in the hospital wing of a Pennsylvania prison because the news media failed in its once honored pursuit of truth. There is an explanation for why most in the news business cower from revisiting this story to look under the rolling stones cast by Ms. Erdely. The Wall Street Journal’s Dorothy Rabinowitz, a rare and courageous “old media” voice of journalistic integrity, explained why:
“Arguing for due process on behalf of a person charged with child sex abuse violated the progressive views held by many toward crimes involving special categories of victims like women and children… [T]here [is] a school of advanced political opinion of the view that to take up for those falsely accused of sex abuse charges was to undermine the battle… It was to betray all other victims of sexual predators … Where advanced reasoning of this sort prevailed, the facts of a case were simply irrelevant.” (Dorothy Rabinowitz, No Crueler Tyrannies, (p. 17-18).
“THE STORY WAS KILLED HIGHER UP”
And it’s not just the press. Broadcast news is driven by the same agendas. Last year I was contacted by a correspondent for a popular cable news venue. This is a news figure with obvious integrity whose positions I trusted and still do. She had been reading These Stone Walls and invested some time in researching the story described on our “About” page. The news correspondent wrote to me asking if I would agree to an on-camera interview for what was described to me as “a few hard questions.”
I agreed, and then waited. And waited. And waited… But the hard questions were never asked. They were never asked because someone did not want them publicly answered. An acquaintance of the news correspondent told me of her disappointment that “the story was killed higher up.”
The story was killed for the same reasons The Washington Post or The New York Times will not look into Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s prior work for Rolling Stone. Hard questions will be asked, and it would be a politically incorrect affront to the media’s progressive agenda if those hard questions were answered. This would require a legitimate inquiry into the story of Daniel Gallagher – Erdely’s “Billy Doe” in the pages of Rolling Stone. It would require some integrity reborn in an “old media” venue such as The Washington Post. For too many in the news business a progressive agenda requires the suppression of truth. As I wrote earlier, you need to know.
You need to know this too. The presiding judge in the case profiled by Ms. Erdely in Rolling Stone in 2011 was by no means immune from the bias Erdely helped to shape. During the process of vetting jurors for the trial of two priests accused in that case, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina objected to a question posed to prospective jurors saying,
“Anybody that doesn’t think there is widespread sexual abuse within the Catholic Church is living on another planet.”
SURVIVORS AND LIARS
A recent issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture has an article by Penn State University professor Philip Jenkins entitled “Survivors and Liars” (August 2016). It’s an analysis of the story of Lauren Stratford. Her shocking tale of childhood sexual abuse and Satanic Ritual Abuse became a fixture of 1980s tabloid journalism “including a legendary Geraldo Rivera special broadcast near Halloween in 1988” in a “Geraldo” installment called “Satanic Breeders.” The story helped launch a moral panic giving unquestioned credence to the claims of adult “survivors” of sexual and Satanic Ritual Abuse that emerge without evidence, often with claims of “repressed and recovered” memory.
Just two weeks later, Geraldo Rivera helped launch the birth pangs of another moral panic with the November 1988 airing of “The Church’s Sexual Watergate.” It featured the early wave of contingency lawyers and the nascent voices of S.N.A.P. eager to harness the news media’s developing scent for Catholic scandal.
Ryan MacDonald found a transcript of that 1988 Geraldo Show among the first documents obtained by Keene, NH Detective James McLaughlin to help defraud the Church out of a lot of money. Ryan produced a rather shocking report of his own about how that Geraldo Rivera show influenced the case against me in “A Grievous Error in Judge Joseph Laplante’s Court.”
As for Geraldo’s Lauren Stratford story, it was later exposed as a fraud thanks to a report of Bob and Gretchen Passantino entitled “Satan’s Sideshow” – described by Philip Jenkins as “a superb piece of investigative journalism.” Lauren Stratford’s shocking tale hyped on “Geraldo” was just a massive lie told by a delusional narcissist. In its wake, Philip Jenkins asks,
“Might other adult ‘survivors’ of child abuse be telling the literal truth? Certainly. But the case of Lauren Stratford should be a ringing reminder that, absent evidence, to the contrary, any one of them could be making up every word.”
Asking the hard questions to tell the difference is the news media’s job, and the story of Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s fall from journalistic grace is a hallmark of how badly the media has failed in this regard. But Erdely’s betrayal did not begin with “Jackie.” It began with “Billy” – aka Daniel Gallagher – “The Lying, Scheming Altar Boy on the Cover of Newsweek” – now basking in the Florida sun with a $5 million settlement, but without the hard questions ever asked – or answered.