How CNN And Fox Messed Up The Coverage Of The ObamaCare Ruling

A case study in what's wrong with the "Breaking News" media.

SCOTUSBlog’s Tom Goldstein has a long — at 7000 words the second longest post in SCOTUSBlog history — post up this morning that gives a minute-by-minute accounts of what was happening behind the scenes on June 28th when the Supreme Court handed down its decision on the Afforable Care Act, and how two cable networks messed up reporting what the Court had decided.

Rather than trying to pick and choose what to highlight, I’ll just recommend it to your attention. However, Goldstein makes several interesting observations:

  • Fox and CNN both made the mistake of treating the Court’s decision as a “Breaking News” event and were thus rushing to be the first network to report what the Court had decided. In both cases, when their reporters inside the Court room got to the part of the opinion where Roberts said that the mandate could not be upheld under the Commerce Clause, the stopped there and passed the information on to the reporters outside. Both networks decided to go with this “news” without realizing that there was a lot more to the 190+ page, including dissents and concurrences, opinion than what had been reported to them.
  • By contrast, MSNBC’s longtime Supreme Court reporter Pete Williams handled the initial analysis of the opinion himself. It meant that his network was behind the others in reporting the news, but they were also the first ones to get it correct.
  • Even when wire reports poured in indicating that the mandate had been upheld, CNN continued reporting the opposite news, something that was having an interesting effect on medical stocks on Wall Street that morning
  • On her own, Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly was monitoring SCOTUSBlog (apparently nobody at CNN bothered to do that) and began cautioning her fellow anchor that their initial report that the mandate had been struck down did not appear to be correct.
  • While his legal team was monitoring other news sources elsewhere in the White House, President Obama saw the CNN reports that the law had been struck down, and walked back into the Oval Office thinking he’d lost his biggest piece of legislation.

The ironic thing about this is that, for days before the decision came down, there were plenty of people in the media, including on CNN, saying that the decision was likely to be complicated and that it may take awhile after reporters had the case in front of them before we’d be able to know for sure what the Court decided. That’s quite often true of a legal opinion of any kind, of course, but when you’re talking about the most important case the Court had heard in years and a majority opinion that, on its own, ran nearly 100 pages, it’s doubly true. One would have thought that the networks, who obviously have been anticipating this decision for months now (thus making one wonder why it qualifies as “Breaking News”), would have had plans in place that would take that complexity into account. Instead, the desire to be “first” won out, and the result was rather inevitable in the case of the two networks that fell into that trap.

One thing that becomes immediately apparent is that the Court bears some responsibility here as well. Rather than acceding to requests that they email copies of the decision to media at the same time it was being released at the Court, they posted it on the Court website as they do with all other cases. Thanks to overwhelming demand, the Court’s servers crashed within minutes after the decision was posted, meaning that the only people who had a copy of the decision in front of them for the first 45 minutes or so were the reporters inside the building. That helped contribute greatly to the confusion. Obviously, more eyes being able to look at the opinion likely would have meant that it would’ve been less likely that anyone would have gotten the initial reports wrong.

SCOTUSBlog also nearly went down that day, it turns out. Right before the Court session opened the site was subjected to a coordinated DDOS attack but the server upgrades they had put in place held up under the demand, and the attacker(s) gave up after only a few minutes. Interestingly, Goldstein also reveals that SCOTUSBlog itself does not have press credentials for the Court, instead relying on long time Supreme Court reporter Lyle Denniston, who has credentials since he also works for other media organizations.

The whole article is interesting not only for the behind-the-scenes story of what was going on at the blog, but also as a fairly apt demonstration of what’s largely wrong with the modern media, where being first has become more important than being right.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Phillip says:

    what’s largely wrong with the modern media,

    It’s not just them, it’s us too. We don’t hold anyone in the public eye truly accountable unless they hurt someone (or some other criminal enterprise). Someone might lose their job, but nothing will change.

  2. Kit says:

    CNN and Fox certainly should be embarrassed, but, to be fair, times have changed. We are far from the days when a false report in a paper would need 24 hours before being corrected. The first tweet I saw got it wrong, but I was disabused of that falsehood within a couple of minutes. If people really wanted digested news they would buy a paper.

  3. Kylopod says:

    A lot of this analysis is interesting and informative, but it doesn’t mention the elephant in the room, which is that there was an overwhelming expectation by the media that the mandate would be struck down. So it was probably a case of seeing what you expect to see–which was also a strong factor in “Dewey Defeats Truman.”

  4. Gustopher says:

    While his legal team was monitoring other news sources elsewhere in the White House, President Obama saw the CNN reports that the law had been struck down, and walked back into the Oval Office thinking he’d lost his biggest piece of legislation.

    Ha ha ha ha ha.

    Apparently my inner dickishness is stronger than my political preferences.

  5. al-Ameda says:

    One would have thought that the networks, who obviously have been anticipating this decision for months now (thus making one wonder why it qualifies as “Breaking News”), would have had plans in place that would take that complexity into account.

    Instead, the desire to be “first” won out, and the result was rather inevitable in the case of the two networks that fell into that trap.

    The problem was they had their stories written, in the interest of being “first” they just didn’t have time to read the 190+ pages to see if the decision confirmed their pre-written stories. Welcome to modern A.D.D. journalism.

    By the way, I loved the FoxNews “apology”

    “We gave our viewers the news as it happened,” declared its statement. “When Justice Roberts said, and we read, that the mandate was not valid under the Commerce clause, we reported it.”

  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @al-Ameda:

    By the way, I loved the FoxNews “apology”

    HA! From Rush’s lips to theirs….

  7. Lomax says:

    What we need now from some network or news”paper” is an investigation into what exactly happened.

  8. EMRVentures says:

    I never would have predicted either the makeup of the 5-4 majority, or the reasoning.

    What I think was entirely predictable, though, was that this decision was going to be a big plate of spaghetti, with dueling concurrences and dissents going this way and that, and differing majorities on the various points of law presented.

    CNN and Fox were just stupid for not recognizing that in advance. Pete Williams is a lawyer — I saw his broadcast on MSNBC and it was clear he knew he was reading a complicated decision and needed to take it slow, lest he speak out of turn.

    Kudos to SCOTUSBlog, too. Those folks are good at what they’ve chosen to do.

  9. miguel cervantes says:

    Well one figured, that if the Commerce Clause rationale fell, and that was the argument from the bill’s inception to the top appeals courts, it would stand to reason that the rest of the bill would fall, something as incoherent as Kennedy’s decisions where tax limiting precedents were enlisted wasn’t contemplated.

  10. Wayne says:

    It is like calling an election. I think the networks are too quick in doing so. I prefer they get it right then being the “first”. IMO being first may get them attention but not ratings like most think it does.

    That said, what interested me more was how the two mistakes were treated. Many slammed and ridiculed Fox while giving CNN a pass by saying “mistakes happen”.