Come on. No one should have believed, even for a second, that 55-year-old Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts was going to resign. While a Democrat is in the White House. What a silly rumor.
Even if you had, you would have had to have considered the source of this “scoop” — radaronline.com, a celebrity gossip website that gossips mainly about semi-celebrities of the level of Jon and Kate Gosselin, Levi Johnston, and “contestants” on the Bachelor. Radaronline appears to tailor its content at an audience that has little patience for the rarefied intellectual content of People Magazine.
But it turns out that a law professor at Georgetown Law School, Peter Tague, was making a point about how it often turns out that police act on false tips from unreliable informants. So Prof. Tague began his class this morning at 9:00 a.m. Eastern time, by telling his class that he had it on very good authority that Chief Justice Roberts was having health issues and would step down. And then by 9:30 a.m. Eastern time, Tague let his students in on the gag — he’d said something he knew wasn’t true because he wanted to see if anyone would believe him.
Well, in the half hour between when Tague created the rumor and when he revealed it to be totally untrue, some of his students immediately began to twitter and blog about it. Radaronline.com picked this up very quickly, and was widely mocked for it even before the news of the falsity of the rumor spread (somewhat more slowly, it seems, than the original rumor itself).
So what we have here is a rather nice example of the power of rumor and news — it spreads nearly instantly in today’s ultra-wired, ultra-communicative environment. There is functionally no fact-checking going on before somebody republishes a story because the rewards for breaking a story are so high that many are willing to set caution aside in the competitive rush to be The First. As a result, a substantial part of the electronic media is working with no filters and no critical thinking going on at all.
Such are the perils of free speech and instant media, I suppose — but it would be nice if people would, you know, think every once in a while. Props to David Lat at Above the Law for tracing the rumor all the way back to its source.