The cable news wars are cut-throat, with a relentless emphasis on being fast and first. But that urgency cost both CNN and Fox News today when both networks erroneously announced that the Supreme Court had overturned President Obama’s health-care law. In fact, the Court upheld the law, with a surprising 5-4 decision authored by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts. The language and the reasoning behind the ruling were dense and complex, and it was clear, at least on CNN’s broadcast, that they hadn’t read the entire document before announcing their own incorrect verdict on the air. They also tweeted the wrong news, only to have to correct themselves 13 minutes later. [Update: CNN has released a statement apologizing for their mistake: “In his opinion, Chief Justice Roberts initially said that the individual mandate was not a valid exercise of Congressional power under the Commerce Clause. CNN reported that fact, but then wrongly reported that therefore the court struck down the mandate as unconstitutional. However, that was not the whole of the Court’s ruling. CNN regrets that it didn’t wait to report out the full and complete opinion regarding the mandate. We made a correction within a few minutes and apologize for the error.”]
Fox News also briefly ran a headline saying, “Supreme Court Finds Health Care Individual Mandate Unconstitutional.” [Update: Michael Clemente, executive vice president of Fox News said in a statement, “We gave our viewers the news as it happened. When Justice Roberts said, and we read, that the mandate was not valid under the Commerce clause, we reported it. Bill Hemmer even added, be patient as we work through this. Then when we heard and read, that the mandate could be upheld under the government’s power to tax, we reported that as well — all within two minutes. By contrast, one other cable network was unable to get their Supreme Court reporter to the camera, and said as much. Another said it was a big setback for the President. Fox reported the facts, as they came in.”]
Other news outlets were more cautious, and it paid off. Prior to the announcement, the New York Times had specifically warned its audience that the ruling might take time for journalists and legal experts to absorb.
“We realize that people will be eager to know what the ruling means as soon as it comes out. But we also want to point out that the immediate descriptions of the ruling may not be very meaningful.
For one thing, the ruling could be complicated, as were Monday’s immigration ruling and the 2000 Bush v. Gore ruling, and not amenable to instant summarizing. The court could even release one portion of the decision, say, upholding or striking down the law’s expansion of Medicaid, before it releases another portion, say, upholding or striking down the so-called individual mandate. …
We plan to tell the readers what the ruling means the moment that we feel comfortable with its basic meaning — which could be almost immediately or could take several minutes. We promise not to bombard you with guesswork or unintelligible legal technicalities.”
Sometimes Always, first is nice, but right is best.