Monday, March 08, 2010

You Can't Believe Everything You Hear!

The Chronicle of Higher Ed passes along a story from Above the Law, "The Backstory of the John Roberts Retirement Rumor." Datelined October 4, 2010, ATL explains that there were thousands of erroneous e-mails, blogposts and text messages flying around that Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts was on the verge of announcing his retirement for health reasons. Radar evidently broke the story, and was the first to retract. Radar's retraction makes it sound as though Roberts just reconsidered. ATL tells it differently; they were skeptical about the rumor and used contacts at the Supreme Court, checking at the Public Information Office, where the rumor apparently caused laughter. Roberts would apparently rather die in office than give President Obama the option of appointing his successor. ATL reports further, with some good, old fashioned investigative reporting:

Here’s an account of what went down in Professor Peter Tague’s criminal law class this morning, from a 1L at Georgetown Law:

"Today’s class was partially on the validity of informants not explaining their sources. [Professor Tague] started off class at around 9 am EST by telling us not to tell anyone, but that we might find it interesting that tomorrow, Roberts would be announcing his retirement for health concerns. He refused to tell anyone how he knew. Then, at around 9:30, he let everyone in on the joke." (snip)

A second Georgetown Law student confirms that Professor Tague’s class was probably where the Roberts resignation rumor got started:

"Our criminal justice professor started our 9 am lecture with the news that roberts will be resigning tomorrow for health reasons — that he could not handle the administrative burdens of the job. He would not say how he knows — but halfway through our lecture on the credibility and reliability of informants he revealed that the Roberts rumor was made up to show how someone you ordinarily think is credible and reliable (ie a law professor) can disseminate inaccurate information."

By then the horse was out of the barn — and running at a gallop:

[B]etween the hour when the class began and when he revealed that he made it up, plenty of students texted and IM’ed their friends and family…. [So] there’s a very good chance that the Roberts rumor that spread like wildfire on the internet was sparked by an eccentric law professor trying to make a point.
We’ve reached out to the aforementioned eccentric law professor, by telephone and by email, but we haven’t heard back from him yet. If we do, we will update this post.

And that, dear readers, is what we do around here — we talk to multiple sources, including the sources most directly involved in a given story, in the course of our reporting. We exercise judgment in deciding what to report and when to report it. We do want to be first, but we also want to be right.
So, John Roberts is still Chief Justice, and not only Professor Tague's class, but much of the legal blogosphere learned a huge lesson in not believing everything you hear!

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