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.