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Mar. 5 2010 - 8:50 am | 667 views | 1 recommendation | 15 comments

A Georgetown law professor owes Chief Justice John Roberts an apology

John G.

Justice John Roberts, the victim of a pedagogical prank

Update: David Lat and I did some further reporting and it now appears that the initial Radar post went up around 12:30 p.m. Radar’s time stamps bear little to no relation to reality. If you’re interested in the nitty, gritty what-happened-when timeline, check it out at Above the Law. If you want even more granular detail, you can email me at kashhill@trueslant.com.

It was a wild day at Above the Law yesterday. Radar Online, a gossip site that doesn’t usually touch Beltway news, announced “exclusively” that Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts planned to announce his retirement “at any time.” Many of our readers sent along the link to the story, but we held back on reporting it, as it struck us as… well… insane.

A number of other sites picked up the news; such is the downside of the blogosphere where being fast is the priority. But in this case, the story was completely wrong. Radar soon retracted it. We reported sarcastically: “ATL Exclusive: John Roberts Is Still Chief Justice!” But a within an hour or so, we had a true exclusive: how the rumor got started.

Georgetown Law professor Peter Tague

Georgetown Law professor Peter Tague

We found out from a few first-year students at the Georgetown University Law Center that a criminal law professor had taught them a lesson that morning on the validity of informants not explaining their sources. Professor Peter Tague started the class by saying that he knew John Roberts would soon be retiring for health reasons, but that he could not tell his students who had told him this. Thanks to our living in the wired age, at least one student texted, g-chatted, or emailed someone outside of the class. Somehow that news made its way to someone at Radar, who jumped on the story.

Midway through the class, Professor Tague revealed that the Roberts information was not true. That he was teaching them a lesson! I’m not sure what he intended to accomplish exactly, but I doubt he wanted it to spread like wildfire through the blogosphere. Still, teaching lesson FAIL.

Read more at Above the Law.

If their time stamps are reliable, Radar issued its initial exclusive at 9:10 am (6:10 a.m. PST), and retracted it at 9:36 a.m. (6:36 a.m. PST) in a separate “Exclusive Update” post. The initial story did not really start circulating until 1 p.m. Huffington Post was the first to recycle the story at 1:03 p.m. By that time, Radar had already retracted it, but HAD NOT put an update in its original post. And no one was looking at Radar’s subsequent news stories.

When Radar saw the story start going viral, it hastily added an update to its original story. At around 1:45 p.m., this appeared:

Update: RadarOnline.com has obtained new information that Justice Roberts will NOT resign. The justice will be staying on the bench.

Radar’s double stupidity — running a story with thin sourcing and then not adding an update in its original post — is the reason for yesterday’s hoax. Journalism practice FAIL.

Professor Tague owes Justice Roberts an apology, but Radar owes us all a much bigger one.


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  1. collapse expand

    Kash, I’m wondering why you think that Tague owes Roberts an apology. It seems to me like he was giving his students a valuable lesson, and rather than paying attention to it, someone in the room went crazy and contacted a gossip rag. His students seem to be the ones who should be apologetic.

  2. collapse expand

    If it is truly outrageous that the media jumped on this, then how much more outrageous is it that our 4th Amendment rights can be tossed aside on an equally unsourced rumor? I think the professor made a larger point than he realized.

  3. collapse expand

    Seems like a good lesson on hearsay. I bet Roberts got a kick out of it. Didn’t you post the story about Twitter in Baltimore court rooms some time ago? Here’s a good reason to ban it. Someone could send out potentially damaging hearsay testimony before the judge strikes it from the record, before it’s brought into question during cross examination, etc. A delay between something happening and that something being reported can be valuable. Instant reporting renders the tradition of verifying what your sources say sort of impossible. There was no reason for Radar to post this without even trying to get a comment from Roberts’ office, for instance.

  4. collapse expand

    An apology? That man deserves to be invited to the white house for a beer summit with the parents of balloon boy.

  5. collapse expand

    These hamburger flippers on the supreme court should be limited to one four or five year term
    and elected by the people…presidents are just too biased one way or the other to appoint these land sharks to the court

  6. collapse expand

    Terrific blog. I intend to use this in my classes. it’s important commentary. I’ve long SUSPECTED (no proof) that the wild speculation about a bombshell in Gov. Paterson’s personal life before The Times stories broke about his real problems could be traced to an off-the-cuff comment by one of the reporters. Maybe something like, “man have we got a hot story about the governor.” it doesn’t take much more in the overheated world of today’s non-stop “news.” I’m teaching an ethics seminar for a group of visiting Irish journalists next week and will hand this out.

  7. collapse expand

    Roberts is tougher than a three-dollar steak. And like everyone that sleeps beneath a picture of Ronald Reagan, is bat-shit crazy to boot.:

    http://criminaljustice.change.org/blog/view/the_hard-boiled_high_court

  8. collapse expand

    Well done, but (without being either journalist or attorney) my sense is that you’re wrong about the teaching failure. For those who can and will use it, I’d say the lesson was heard far beyond the ivy.

  9. collapse expand

    I am starting to think that the professor’s lesson was brilliant. But I still think it would be good manners to send an apologetic note to the Supreme Court.

  10. collapse expand

    You’re right. Good manners probably demands an apology. Pedagogy, maybe a little less so.

  11. collapse expand

    This whole incident springing from a comment inside a class lecture is crazy. But I agree that the outcome is highly revealing of the state of media today. I tend to be disinterested in stories-about-the-story, but there’s a real lesson to be learned here about our Internet culture as well.

  12. collapse expand

    This begs the question was it a lesson or experiment?

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