Saturday, June 30, 2012

CNN, Fox and the perils of jumping the gun


THE MEDIA earthquake that was the SCOTUS health-care law decision caught Washington and the nation by surprise on Thursday, and some outlets of the electronic media were no less surprised, even when they really shouldn’t have been.

The rush for the cameras in the moments during and after Chief Justice John Roberts’ reading of the decision was the digital equivalent of the reporters’ sprint to the phone banks, a gloss on the era of reporting straight out of “The Front Page.”

But CNN and Fox News, hardly outliers in the world of cable news, dropped the ball in the accuracy of their initial reports, jumping the gun on the finality of the event they reported in an embarrassing way.

Viewers of CNN (“The Most Trusted Name in News”) and Fox News (“We Report. You Decide.”) were treated on Thursday to the ritual stakeout of the Supreme Court building where Chief Justice Roberts was to read the ruling concerning the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act signed into law by President Obama in March 2010.

Then, the first reports began to trickle in, and the race was on.

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The whispers into the earpieces of producers and reporters for both networks came to the same conclusion: The Supreme Court had ruled the crucial individual insurance mandate of the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional. CNN congressional correspondent Kate Bolduan and Fox News reporter Shannon Bream were in position outside the Court, each holding a multi-paged document that was, presumably, the printed version of the decision.

Bolduan, using slightly conditional language, at least suggested things were in flux — “I’m gonna hop back on this phone, and try to get more information for you,” she said on the air. But in that tele-instant, thanks to the producers creating the chyron graphics that run at the bottom of the screen, the conditional became the factual — “SUPREME CT. KILLS INDIVIDUAL MANDATE” — before the facts were in.

Before Bolduan came back with the right information, CNN anchors Wolf Blitzer and John King ran with the first-blush news, analytically building on Bolduan’s erroneous report, and telling CNN viewers What It All Meant before It had even been reported.

Over at Fox News, anchor Bill Hemmer gave the moment a drumroll finality. “We have breaking news here on the Fox News Channel ... the individual mandate ... has been ruled … unconstitutional.”



Hemmer actually said what he said before Bream, standing outside the Court building, read from the decision itself. But Fox News, darling of the conservative media, may have been guilty of wishful thinking, and of accepting the prevailing belief days and weeks before the decision that the law and/or the mandate were dead.

Hemmer’s portentous report, mind you, jumped the gun on Bream’s own reporting. And curiously, it took second place to the banner at the bottom of the screen, which screamed “SUPREME COURT FINDS HEALTH CARE INDIVIDUAL MANDATE UNCONSTITUTIONAL.” Those words were visible to Fox News viewers before Hemmer said a word.

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It took about two minutes for Fox to fix its news, but it was a full seven minutes before the right information surfaced on CNN, information that came to light after more of the decision was announced. What happened next at both networks was backing and filling, throat-clearing and stammering as CNN and Fox backtracked to the truth. Both networks later issued corrections across their formats, and properly offered mea culpas on the air.



Then Fox pushed back hard, in a statement defending itself and its brief overreach. “We gave our viewers the news as it happened," Michael Clemente, Fox News' executive vice president of news, said in a statement reported by The Hollywood Reporter.


“When Justice Roberts said, and we read, that the mandate was not valid under the Commerce clause, we reported it. … 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. …”

“Fox reported the facts, as they came in.”

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BUT THAT’S precisely the problem. Immediacy reporting has its limitations. It’s possible for reporting to move faster than the news it’s based on. In their zeal to be first, Fox and CNN here adopted a newsgathering approach better suited to the static event: the death of a foreign leader, the election of a president, the stock market’s latest dizzying high or dizzying low.

The rolling, almost episodic dimension of the SCOTUS announcement — and the apparent lack of enough legal-expert depth at either network to provide viewers with a head’s up to what was really happening — demanded that Fox and CNN wait for the real final chapter.

This was a story for which the document needed for accurate reporting had to be consumed in its entirety, or certainly more comprehensively. This just in: There’s some news you can’t report until it’s actually happened. All of it. Some facts you can’t put a convenient frame around “as they come in” until you can be sure the events have fully transpired.

If it was just a matter of waiting until a full (or fuller) reading of the court’s opinion was available, Fox and CNN would have been on more solid ground to have done exactly that. As it was, Fox and CNN reported the winner of the first eight rounds of a title fight as the winner of the bout — right before the final rounds changed everything.

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But the damage was done. As you might expect, the word on the goofs got out almost immediately. It didn’t take long for the blogosphere to react in riotous fashion. The New York Times reported that Gary He, a graphic artist, was responsible for a spot-on Photoshop illustration that showed President Obama’s face superimposed on the body of Harry Truman, in a refresh of the timeless photo of another classic media fail: holding high the post-1948 election front page of the Chicago Tribune announcing DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.

In He’s brilliant update, Obama holds an iPad showing the home page of the CNN web site, the headline blaring the words MANDATE STRUCK DOWN.

The Huffington Post took a shot, too, offering its readers a slideshow of Ryan Gosling photos captioned with bon mots about the SCOTUS ruling, one of them coming at CNN’s expense. Jon Stewart jumped into the act on “The Daily Show.” You know how that went.

We might have expected this from Fox, a network that hews as consistently to the political right as MSNBC does to the political left. But for CNN to be asleep at the switch for seven minutes on one of the biggest stories in decades — the constitutional green light for the most sweeping retooling of American health care since Medicare — was hard to believe. An old hand at breaking news (the oldest, really), CNN has the history of covering mammoth world-level news events to suggest this shouldn’t have happened.

And it shouldn’t have happened to either of them. In the SCOTUS text, the conclusive answer Bolduan and Bream wanted is at the top of page 4 of the syllabus that precedes the full decision that was already in their hands:

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Part III-C, concluding that the individual mandate may be upheld as within Congress’s power under the Taxing Clause.

You don’t have to be an Evelyn Wood speed-reading school graduate to get to page 4.

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BOTH CNN and Fox will no doubt investigate what happened; some poor soul’s head will probably roll, a sacrificial lamb to network reputation. But it’s not hard to understand what occurred. By obeying their first-at-all-costs journalistic reflexes, two of the more prominent exponents of cable news were blindsided by the complexity of the very news they covered.

These grizzled veterans of cable learned what people on social media remember, forget and remember all the time: In a 24/7 information age, you can get a do-over but the original can’t be erased.

And ironically, they got a refresher lesson from Modern Reporting 101: Even in today’s rapacious media environment, you don’t get near as much credit for being first as you get for being right.

Image credits: Screengrabs: Fox News and CNN. Obama Photoshop: © 2012 Gary He. Ryan Gosling slide: Facebook/HuffPost Women.

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