21 July 2013

Court decisions and misleading journalism

I have repeatedly warned against the use of RT as a legitimate news source. Their headlines are link bait and often do not match the content of the article. Yet I see people link to it all the time.

Given this background, I tend to avoid even going to RT unless I'm looking to evaluate their poor journalistic habits. Such is the case with this article from last fall: Feds seize gold coins worth $80 mln from Pennsylvania family:
A federal judge has upheld a verdict that strips a Pennsylvania family of their grandfather [Israel Switt]’s gold coins — worth an estimated $80 million — and has ordered ownership transferred to the US government.
The article goes on to suggest what might have happened, according to the family:
Switt’s descendants, the Langbords, thought the coins had been gifted to their grandfather years earlier by Mint cashier George McCann and took the coins to the Mint to have their authenticity verified, but the government quickly took hold of the items and refused to relinquish the find to the family. The Langbords responded with a lawsuit that ended last year in a victory for the feds. 
The jury and the judge didn't see it that way: 
Because the government ordered the destruction of their entire supply of coins decades earlier, the court found that Switt’s family was illegally in possession of the stash. Even though they may had been presented to the dealer by a Philadelphia Mint staffer, Judge Davis agrees with last year’s ruling that Mr. McCann broke the law.
Someone linked to the article on Facebook and the comments were almost entirely from people who were outraged that the government would do such a thing. The horror! Well, maybe not. After reading through the judge's opinion, it was pretty clear to me that no one else commenting on the article had actually done the same. Not surprisingly, RT did not link to the ruling; the facts of the case might (read: would) have undermined their sensationalist story.

What really happened? The evidence strongly supports the idea that the Mint cashier George McCann illegally conspired with Switt, a coin dealer, to steal the coins from the Mint. None of the coins were ever made available to the public; there was no evidence that these particular coins were gifted; the jury did not believe that Ms. Langbord "discovered" the coins. In fact, the evidence suggested that the Langbords knew for quite a while about their provenance. Additionally, the article does not even mention a detailed Secret Service investigation which made it pretty clear what had happened.

Read the first sentence of the article again: "A federal judge has upheld a verdict that strips a Pennsylvania family of their grandfather’s gold coins..." Except when you steal coins, they never belong to you. Ownership is not transferred when the coins are returned to their lawful owner. This is worse than confusing; it is blatantly misleading. RT knows that 99/100 readers will never go find the court's opinion (much less have access to it); as a result, they can get away with it.

I suppose one might say, in RT's defense, that perhaps the author (unnamed, of course) is not legally trained and perhaps misunderstood the decision. I doubt it. If you (presumably, most of you reading this are not lawyers) even just briefly skim through the decision below, I suspect you'd come out on the same side as me. I suspect, based upon the last sentence of the article, that the author never actually read the court's opinion and just used the ABCNews.com story as their primary reference.

(A side note: I have said repeatedly that when reporting on court cases, journalists should, at a minimum, list the name of the case as it is styled by the court; and preferably, link to the text of the decision. Sadly, this does not happen often. For your benefit, I have posted the text of the judge's ruling below.)

The other day, a friend of mine asked me about a particular news outlet (not RT) and whether it was legitimate news, or "enternewsment" (his word). My answer was that he should treat it suspiciously like any other news source. RT, on the other hand, deserves much less than a presumption of suspicion. It's garbage.

Post a Comment