How CNN and Fox News got the health care ruling wrong

In a 7,000-word SCOTUSblog piece — the site’s second longest ever — publisher Tom Goldstein examines how CNN and Fox News came to incorrectly report the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obamacare ruling and what SCOTUSblog, Bloomberg News and others did to get the decision right.

He says it boils down to this: The two largest cable news networks treated the court’s decision as a breathless “breaking news” event, “despite the fact that everyone knew when the opinion was going to be released.”

At the networks on the morning of June 28…

The CNN producer says (correctly) that the Court has held that the individual mandate cannot be sustained under the Commerce Clause, and (incorrectly) that it therefore “looks like” the mandate has been struck down. The control room asks whether they can “go with” it, and after a pause, he says yes.

The Fox producer reads the syllabus exactly the same way, and reports that the mandate has been invalidated. Asked to confirm that the mandate has been struck down, he responds: “100%.”

Meanwhile, Bloomberg was the first with an alert — “OBAMA’S HEALTH-CARE OVERHAUL UPHELD BY U.S.SUPREME COURT” — and gets it right.

Goldstein says SCOTUSblog’s strategy was to go slow and not make any mistakes. He notes that he “stupidly” told the Washington Post that he expected SCOTUSblog to beat the Associated Press with a report on the ruling. (Goldstein later told AP’s Mark Sherman that “we’re not racing you,” and that in a decision this long and complicated, “no one will remember if you move this story first or we do” but the “only thing anyone will ever remember is if we fucked it up.”)

Goldstein says both CNN and Fox “exposed themselves to potential failure” — got the ruling wrong — by:

(a) treating the decision as a breathless “breaking news” event, despite the fact that everyone knew when the opinion was going to be released, while at the same time

(b) not putting sufficiently sound procedures in place to deal with the potential complications, and

(c) not placing more faith in the consensus view of the wire reports.

Goldstein calls two networks’ responses to their errors “a study in contrasts”:

The reaction in some quarters at CNN has been apoplectic. But Fox – which like CNN is taking steps to avoid making a similar initial mistake in the future – generally views Thursday morning’s “transparent” broadcasting of information as it developed in real time as exactly how its reporting should function.

As for SCOTUSblog, “we helped the traditional media and the White House, and we distributed the information directly to the public,” writes Goldstein. “We also survived hackers, accommodated a record number of visitors, and had a chance to report on one of the most momentous decisions in recent history. And we had a blast doing it.”

* We’re getting wildly different assessments (SCOTUSblog)

Earlier posts:

* AP reporter chides CNN for getting Obamacare ruling wrong (JimRomenesko.com)
* AP orders staff to stop taunting rivals about mistake on ruling (JimRomenesko.com)
* Bloomberg News says it was first with the health care ruling (JimRomenesko.com)
* For SCOTUSblog, the goal is to be first with the Obamacare ruling (Washington Post)

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