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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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.