Over the last week, with new accusation of sexual misconduct against Donald Trump, a quiet reckoning began in a federal courthouse in Charlottesville, Va.: the first of two defamation trials against Rolling Stone for its story of a gang rape at the University of Virginia. The trial swirls around a blockbuster 2014 feature that Rolling Stone retracted last year. It told a harrowing story of a student, “Jackie”, who claimed to have been gang-raped by seven fraternity brothers. The $7.8 million lawsuit asks whether Rolling Stone knew or should have known that its portrayal of Nicole Eramo, a former University of Virginia dean who complains that she was unfairly painted as the story’s “chief villain”, was false. So far, the trial has involved relitigating many ways writer Sabrina Erdely failed to corroborate Jackie’s central story, reports The Guardian.
It is against this backdrop that political reporters are vetting stories on Trump. Since a 2005 tape revealed the presidential candidate bragging that his fame allowed him to grope and kiss women without their permission, seven women have publicly accused him of doing just that. Trump denied the charges. Reporting these kinds of accusations poses inherent challenges. Most accusers related their stories through the press, making the media the primary arbiters of their credibility. “You really do have to show your work in all this,” said Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post. She wrote about Kristin Anderson, who claimed Trump touched her inappropriately at a night club many years ago. With so much time having passed, “you’re never going to get a story like this beyond the point of being a ‘he said, she said’”, Tumulty said. “What we needed to make sure was that the ‘she said’ side of this story was credible. And we were convincing ourselves, through our reporting process, that she was.”