HBO defeated Mitre Sports International in a multimillion-dollar defamation case Friday over a 2008 Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel report depicting child labor in the soccer ball industry in India.
The decision concludes a six-year battle between the cable network and one of the world’s largest soccer brands. The jury’s ruling in federal court could also have First Amendment implications for how journalists can report on labor practices at big companies in the future.
Mitre’s lawsuit, filed in United States District Court for Southern District of New York in 2008, claimed HBO falsely depicted young Indian children hand-stitching Mitre soccer balls for measly pay to support their families. The segment was titled Children of Industry. The show that aired more than 100 times in 2008.
"We are disappointed with the jury’s verdict," Mitre said in a statement Friday. "But, we are pleased we were able to tell our side of the story to the general public. For us, this case has not been about winning or losing, it has always been about setting the record straight even if we were unable to overcome the high burden of proof under U.S. law."
HBO said in a statement on Friday, “We are delighted with the jury’s decision, which confirms what we have said since the beginning of this legal proceeding in the fall of 2008: this case was without merit and the Real Sports reporting was unimpeachable. We couldn’t be prouder of the Real Sports franchise and the award-winning work done over the past 20 years."
Mitre, which was established in 1817, called the documentary “dramatized” and a “hoax” in the suit. At trial, Mitre’s lawyers argued that HBO journalists paid young Indian children to appear on camera stitching the brand’s balls and say they worked long hours for well less than minimum wage. Attorney Lloyd Constantine called the documentary “fictitious” and likened the reporting to the “twisted spires of Game of Thrones” in his opening statement.
The soccer ball manufacturer argued it was unfairly targeted by HBO; it’s the only brand that appears in Children of Industry and it is mentioned at least 20 times.
During the 17-day trial, Mitre’s smoking gun was the deposition confessions of three young indian stitchers, who testified under oath that the HBO journalists taught them to stitch soccer balls and paid them to appear on camera.
HBO contested that the children were threatened and pressured into lying in their deposition by “thugs” from the Sporting Goods Foundation of India, a local labor-monitoring organization of the soccer industry. Additionally, the network argued it would be impossible for the kids depicted in Children of Industry to construct the balls proficiently if they had just learned how to stitch. HBO showed at trial large amounts of unused footage and portions of Children of Industry that showed Indian children rapidly stitching balls.
“Just ask yourself: Do these kids look like they learned five minutes ago?” Dane Butswinkas, an attorney for HBO, asked the jury as he played the segment in its entirety during closing arguments on Thursday.
“Anybody who has ever learned how to sew on a button knows that doesn’t look like she learned five minutes ago,” Butswinkas said. “A picture does paint a thousand words, doesn’t it?”
While the trial did probe the state of child labor in poor parts of India, the case also became more of a debate around the First Amendment privileges of journalists reporting on sensitive labor issues facing large companies.
In a turning point that occurred before the case reached a courtroom, Judge George Daniels granted Mitre private figure status, meaning it only needed to prove that HBO acted in a “grossly irresponsible” manner in how it depicted the company — a much lower threshold than proving “actual malice,” the standard for defaming a public figure.
That decision concerning Mitre, which by its own admission is the “seventh or eighth biggest” brand in the billion-dollar soccer industry, led 27 media organizations to file amicus briefs in the case, calling the decision “a marked departure from well-established law and the widespread understanding” of what constitutes a public figure.
“It leaves the press to wonder whether the actual malice standard will continue to apply to news stories concerning public issues of great importance, involving companies that are household names, companies that are leaders in their industries and central players in the resolution of those public issues,” the brief read.
It also became clear that part of Mitre’s intent in bringing the lawsuit was to argue that more constraints should be put on the press reporting on a company of its stature.
During his testimony, Stephen Rubin, Mitre owner and chair of its parent company, Pentland Group, said he sued HBO so that “they wouldn’t do another report.” Rubin referenced the final exchange of the Real Sports segment when host Bryant Gumbel and correspondent Bernie Goldberg agreed that they would explore the issue again soon.
Mitre tried to scrutinize the show’s key journalists to make the case that HBO acted grossly irresponsibly in producing Children of Industry.
During Goldberg’s testimony, Constantine accused the 48-year veteran correspondent of sloppy reporting in the piece, based on the fact that he never traveled to India, never met the children featured in the show, and opted to interview leading Indian child labor activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi in an “Indian-themed hotel” in London.
At the end of his cross-examination, Constantine quoted from Goldberg’s book, Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News. “There is an old saying in the newsroom: Never let the facts get in the way of a good story,” Constantine read. He asked Goldberg if that’s what he did in Children of Industry.
Goldberg replied, “absolutely not.” And as he walked off the stand, Goldberg tapped the copy of his book laying on Mitre’s legal team’s table and asked Constantine if he wanted him to autograph it for him.
Mitre reserved its most acute journalism ethics criticism for HBO’s Joe Perskie, the producer of Children of Industry.
Mitre’s lawyers claimed Perskie and associate producer Zehra Mamdani copied a 60 Minutes segment, "Tobacco Slaves," in creating their report. They pointed to an email from Perskie to Mamdani with voiceover text from 60 Minutes reporter Scott Pelley as evidence.
Mitre also argued that Perskie misled viewers with “clever” editing tricks that showed Indian children stitching soccer balls in the city of Meerut — where Mitre’s manufacturers do not operate — during the portion of the show that focused on Jalandhar, India.
Constantine argued the part of the show featuring Satyarthi was “sliced and diced.” He pointed out that a clip where the Nobel laureate said the problem of child labor was “decreasing very fast” was omitted from the final cut of the show.
During his testimony, Perskie said the decision to feature Mitre over other brands was because they found “40 to 50 sightings” of children stitching the company’s balls, while they only found one or two examples for other companies. “That’s actually the strongest evidence that they targeted Mitre,” Constantine said during closing arguments.
On Thursday, Perskie glared at Constantine during Mitre’s closing as the attorney accused the producer of concocting a “bold-faced lie.”
Constantine called Perskie and HBO’s assertion that Sporting Goods Foundation of India — the local labor monitoring organization — intimidated the children in the segment into lying and saying HBO paid them and staged the stitching an “imaginary climate of fear.”
Perskie appeared to become exasperated, shaking his head and clenching his jaw, as Constantine listed off local Indian stringers that Perskie hired to report for the project and called each journalist a “liar.”
HBO countered with evidence that Mitre knew about child labor issues in Jalandhar before the show’s 2008 airing.
Prior to the broadcast, HBO informed Mitre that it had found children under the age of 14 stitching Mitre soccer balls for pennies in homes in Jalandhar and asked the brand if they would be interviewed for the show. Mitre declined and told HBO it would send its own security expert to India to investigate.
Before the first broadcast, Mitre told HBO that its head of security found “60 homes” where balls were being stitched by children, and that nine balls in those homes were Mitre brand.
HBO argued that this admission by Mitre proved that while the show “wasn’t perfect,” what had been broadcast was “substantially true.”
In closing arguments, Constantine told the jury, “truth is the eternal god,” a saying from the Punjab region that Children of Industry highlighted.
Butswinkas, the lawyer for HBO, closed saying Mitre’s primary concern was “negative publicity,” pointing to Rubin’s testimony that the owner was most concerned about another report.
“They’re worried about having a light shined on the problem,” Butswinkas said. “We prefer the light on, not off.”