A Georgetown law professor owes Chief Justice John Roberts an apology
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 email@example.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.
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.