At the end of the 1993 Nevada Legislature, there was a reporter who got it in her head that the lawmakers had accidentally outlawed brothel prostitution in Nevada.
She was warned off it by a member of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, but she ran the story, anyway.
The next thing we knew, the story was on the front page of every daily in the state and there were national crews coming into Nevada, mainly from tabloid shows, to report on the development.
When all the fuss was over, the brothels went on operating as they had before.
Few media entities embarrassed the reporter by pointing this out.
The problem was that the reporter did not know how to check statutes against each other. Yes, she found language that seemed to outlaw brothels, but when read in conjunction with other statutes, it did not.
This happens a lot. Know-it-alls have told people tales about the law that have no basis. I remember one fellow who fell under the spell of a guy who claimed that the federal income tax was illegal. I covered the Internal Revenue Service confiscation of a private airplane the fellow owned when he failed to pay his taxes. His mentor taught his disciples a false gospel, which involved cherry-picking federal law.
We saw another instance at the 2017 Nevada Legislature when state lawmakers claimed to ratify a federal constitutional amendment.
How could it have done so, when there was no amendment up for ratification? Some zealous supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment, which had expired 35 years earlier, had concocted a legal theory that the deadline for ratification imposed by Congress was “irrelevant.”
Then there is the Nevada secession movement, which has cited Maine and West Virginia to argue that the small counties can secede from Nevada. Maine became a state after it was separated from Massachusetts, and West Virginia became a state when its northeastern counties remained loyal to the union after Virginia seceded in 1861.
But Massachusetts consented to surrendering some of its territory to allow Maine to be created, which won’t happen in Nevada. And the set of facts that allowed the creation of West Virginia don’t remotely fit anything that is happening – or is likely to happen – in the 21st century.
People in these kinds of situations always talk themselves into believing what they are pre-disposed to believe.
But journalists, who are not good at reading law, are often taken in by these kinds of scenarios, too, which is one more thing that undercuts the credibility of news coverage these days.
Dennis Myers is an award-winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.