By James Hirsen, Special for USDR
A trial is set to begin on April 13, 2015, which has implications for the credibility of the American media and sports news figures.
HBO is the defendant in a defamation lawsuit, which is headed to trial in federal court, over a 2008 episode of “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.”
During a segment of Gumbel’s show, it was reported that a sporting equipment maker, Mitre Sports International, manufactured soccer balls using child labor. Mitre makes the exclusive soccer ball of the English Premier League as well as the one used in Major League Soccer.
The fundamental question in this particular legal case is whether Gumbel’s cable television sports show featured a phony investigative report involving exploited child workers.
The segment in question, titled “Childhood Lost,” depicts children stitching soccer balls in India for 5 cents per hour or less.
Mitre filed the lawsuit in the same year that the broadcast aired. The suit asks for tens of millions of dollars in damages, claiming that the segment was a “hoax” and further asserting that the content of the report was “fabricated” or “dramatized.”
Gumbel, who is best known for spending 15 years as co-host of NBC’s “The Today Show,” opened the subject show with the following explicit claim: “We start with a sobering look at a practice that is clearly illegal, and was supposedly done away with years ago, and that’s child labor.”
Regular correspondent for Gumbel’s show, Bernard Goldberg, informs the viewing audience, “In the slums of India, children as young as six spend their days crouched on dirt floors stitching soccer balls together.”
Reportedly, as a consequence of the televised segment, Wal-Mart and Modell’s Sporting Goods saw fit to remove all Mitre Cobra soccer balls from their stores.
According to court documents, Goldberg had expressed misgivings early on, having written the following to the show’s coordinating producer: “I think this is unfair to Walmart and Mitre.”
Goldberg later said via testimony that his questions had been addressed after the segment had been finalized.
In its court papers, Mitre claims to have obtained video interviews with the parents of some of the children who had appeared on the HBO segment. The footage of the video interviews that Mitre allegedly obtained indicates that the children were not factory workers and that they had been offered money or fame to lie on camera.
According to Mitre’s complaint, Goldberg interviewed a purported twelve-year-old orphan named Manjit Kaur, who said she earned 5 cents an hour making balls until her back ached “and her eyes hurt.” However, the child’s father appears in a video that is part of the court record and reportedly states that his daughter was offered 100 rupees ($2) in exchange for her cooperation with the show.
Mitre claims in the complaint that the company was able to acquire videos containing statements from the parents of two other children who they say lied in order to appear on television.
As part of a ruling allowing the case to go forward, the federal judge overseeing the litigation stated: “Children identified as stitchers of Mitre soccer balls gave unrebutted testimony that they were induced to pretend to stitch Mitre balls on camera and that those scenes were staged.”
Mitre’s defamation case is also assisted by the testimony of an HBO researcher who found “no children who could stitch footballs.” Harinder Singh, a freelance journalist who worked for HBO, testified that the scenes of children stitching Mitre-branded soccer balls shown were “fabricated” or “dramatized.”
Goldberg may have helped to reduce the potential damage to Mitre when he summed up the “Childhood Lost” segment by saying he did not believe the sporting goods manufacturer wanted the child labor to happen, and by providing the qualification that “the subcontractors are a different story altogether.”
HBO is defending the claims contained in the show by maintaining that the essence of the segment was and is “substantially true.”
One particular ruling has presented a significant advantage for the plaintiff, Mitre. The law imposes a greater burden of proof on a defamation plaintiff who is deemed to be a “public figure.”
The case law requires a “public figure” to show what the Court has referred to as “actual malice,” which is in fact a showing that the defendant either knew or held a reckless disregard that the material reported was false.
In the case in question, the judge has ruled that Mitre is not deemed to be a public figure.
Adding to the drama of this trial is the question of whether HBO chairman and chief executive Richard Plepler will be compelled to testify under oath. It is likely that Mitre’s lawyers are highly inclined to welcome an appearance by the HBO CEO as a witness during the trial to address all of the allegations.
Reportedly, HBO has been vigorously attempting to invalidate the subpoena of Plepler.
The day after the segment aired, Plepler purportedly emailed an HBO publicist, ordering that the child labor footage be sent to Obama administration foreign policy advisor Samantha Power as well as to New York Times columnists Thomas Friedman and Nicholas Kristof.
“This should get real traction,” the HBO chairman wrote. “It’s important work.”
The case has the potential to be a vehicle that could reveal a number of major journalistic shortcomings.