A lot happened in the media while I was away the last week and a half: Anderson Cooper came out, Ann Curry went out and, when the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act was released, a couple of news organizations flamed out. Fox News and—longer and more spectacularly—CNN made the hurried mistake of reporting, on an incomplete reading of the majority opinion, that SCOTUS had struck down the individual mandate (on the basis of the Commerce Clause) when it in fact upheld the mandate (under Congress’ taxing authority).
I was en route to Michigan, sitting in the passenger seat on I-80 in Pennsylvania when the ruling came down. So I saw the confusion spreading not on TV but on Twitter and the web, where my main (and it turned out, accurate) source on the story was the live coverage at SCOTUSblog. Now, the blog has an exhaustive, fascinating, second-by-second breakdown of the breakdown in news standards. It runs 7000 words—to cover nine minutes of events—but it reads like a compelling, media-geek thriller, a slow-motion ballet of failure.
I recommend reading the whole thing, but a few of the most interesting details had to do with why the mistakes got made in the first place, how they spread so fast and why CNN, in particular, took so long to retract and correct them.
It wasn’t just these news outlets rushing to be first with the news without reading thoroughly enough—though that was a big part of it. The assembled reporters and producers got paper copies of the ruling before electronic ones were released online (the website temporarily failed), then scattered off to speed-read while John Roberts was reading the majority opinion. So when a couple of producers decided—before turning a crucial page—that the mandate was struck down, they missed a crucial clue as to why they would be wrong:
Inside G42 [the SCOTUS press room], the press room staff hear the Chief Justice say over the speakers that the Court will have to confront the government’s arguments under both the commerce power and also the tax power. But none of the reporters hear him; they are all gone.
A CNN and a Fox producer do a quick scan and tell their newsrooms that the mandate is toast. In the meantime—only seconds, but crucial seconds, later—other news outlets are reaching the correct interpretation. But the mistaken producers are working in isolation, and by the time CNN’s producer realizes—”Wait, wait”—that he may have erred,
it is already too late. CNN has been carefully orchestrating its transformation into a shockingly efficient news distribution company. They have been planning to saturate every screen in reach with this story as fast as possible, and the producer’s initial go-ahead pulled the trigger. On the air, Wolf Blitzer is sending the coverage to the Courthouse steps. And as planned the reporter is putting her phone down to go on the air, which cuts herself off from the only CNN employee with access to the opinion.
No less important, the network’s web and social media teams are plugged directly into the call through CNN central. They immediately publish unequivocal tweets and a breaking news email saying that the mandate had been invalidated.
CNN’s mastery of tech and process made it the perfect vehicle for the dissemination of a whopping error, one that gets quickly picked up and retweeted. SCOTUSblog’s correct reading of the ruling is initially mocked by readers who know the mandate was really overturned, because, after all, they saw it on TV:
Opponents of the Act, having seen the television reports, are incredulous and vocal in their responses: Guest, “WHAT???”; Guest, “no reports says its gone!”; Republican, “OMFG”; Tim, “No it isn’t”; Ryan, “Bullshit”; Guest, “apparently you have it wrong”; Sarika, “IT IS NOT SURVIVING AS A TAX!!”; Fred, “It sounds like you guys are spinning this thing. Knock it off and read the law!”
Fox, meanwhile, went to air with the same wrong report as CNN. But because their online operation is not as seamlessly integrated with their TV reporting, they don’t spread the mistake as far. And by noticing contradictory reports on SCOTUSblog, their coverage (anchored by former Court reporter Megyn Kelly) is able to course-correct sooner:
The Fox producer in charge of the event – the network’s Vice President for News, Jay Wallace – trusts Kelly completely, and he knows the blog, because a few hours earlier Kelly had asked him to intercede in a dispute between her own Fox show and another over which one I would appear on after the decision. So the producer allows the network to switch gears on the fly. But just like CNN, Fox does not immediately remove or qualify the banner at the bottom of its screen. Kelly interjects again, saying on the air (at 10:10:41): “We may need to update our lower third.”
On the other hand, CNN, having rushed to punch the button on the wrong report, is cautious and equivocal in taking it back, and seems to be operating in a bubble. They are, by far, the last major outlet to reverse their call on the ruling, partly because of doubts caused by other people repeating and aggregating—yep—CNN’s original error:
By 10:12 at the latest, CNN was alone in seriously suggesting that the mandate might have been invalidated. The network’s on-air team responsibly hedged throughout the entire process. But by 10:14, they should have been told not to claim that there were wildly conflicting reports about whether the mandate had been invalidated – the only reports on its side were its own, or echoes of its first reports bouncing around Twitter and blogs.
There’s a lot more, including details of how the confusion played out at the White House and among the pundits and analysts each network employed. As a media critic, I would have liked to have been around to see all this unfold on TV. As a citizen, though, I ended up better and faster informed following the whole thing on my iPad from my car.