CNN, Fox News flub revives debate

Cable news nets were too quick on the trigger on health-care ruling

Within about an hour after a Supreme Court majority announced that it was upholding the bulk of the health-care reform law on Thursday, a montage created by Gary He circulated on Twitter that superimposed the famous 1948 image of Harry Truman holding the Chicago Tribune emblazoned “Dewey Defeats Truman” with that of President Obama, holding an iPad turned to the CNN webpage and its headline “Mandate struck down.”

The misreporting by CNN, as well as Fox News, triggered a storm of reaction, but it also showed that the breathlessness of the hyper-competitive news cycle has its limits when it comes to the high court, set up more for the press of a bygone era than one for the age of Twitter. Media orgs including CSPAN had requested live audio or video in-chambers access to the court’s announcement but were rejected as they have been in the past, and the court also restricts such things as Blackberrys and cellphones from the proceedings. On this day, however, the court allowed media reps to leave the room itself in order to get the news out.

So when Chief Justice Roberts started reading excerpts of his opinion, at about 10:06 a.m., he started by saying that the individual mandate was not valid under the Commerce Clause. After a producer reportedly notified a reporter, CNN went with it, and assumed it to mean the mandate was struck down. But Roberts went on to say that the mandate was constitutional under the federal power of taxation.

By then, CNN’s reporting team was going with the news that Obama’s signature achievement was being gutted. They corrected on air at 10:14 a.m.

“CNN regrets that it didn’t wait to report out the full and complete opinion regarding the mandate,” the network said in a statement. “We made a correction within a few minutes and apologize for the error.”

Fox News’ Chyron reported that the individual mandate was “unconstitutional,” but in a statement, exec VP Michael Clemente did not so much apologize as defend what happened.

“We gave our viewers the news as it happened,” he said. “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.”

He added, “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.”

The coverage evoked memories of 2000, when the high court issued its ruling in Bush vs. Gore and some news organizations struggled to make sense of it before seeing it as a victory for George W. Bush.

The difference this time is that much of the media followed the proceedings on SCOTUSBlog, which was founded by husband and wife Tom Goldstein and Amy Howe in 2002 and saw its highest traffic ever, more than 800,000 visitors, for a live feed on Thursday morning. They reported at 10:08 a.m., accurately, that “the individual mandate survives as a tax.”

The media meme leading into the morning was that the mandate, and maybe the entire law itself, would be struck down. After the high court’s oral arguments, and the skeptical questions aimed at Soliticor General Donald Verrilli, many pundits took that as meaning that the law was doomed.

It was Goldstein who, on Wednesday night, went against the general conventional wisdom. He predicted that it would be upheld, although it seemed more on instinct than access to inside information.

On Thursday evening, the SCOTUS bloggers weren’t crowing but relieved. Their Twitter hashtag read #weneedadrink.

For the entertainment industry, the immediate impact of the ruling was tinged with politics, as such activists as Michael Moore and Alec Baldwin chimed in.

On a practical level, Hollywood guild officials say that health-care reform won’t lead to significant change to their health plans. But for many actors, writers and others not covered, it will be a big deal.

Adam Huttler, executive director of Fractured Atlas, a nonprofit set up to support artists, estimated that some 600,000 creative professionals are uninsured and said the reform law “radically improves” their access to an individual market for insurance. He noted that the law will prevent insurers from turning down applicants with pre-existing conditions, which have been broadly defined. He’s seen dancers turned down for having had eczema.

The health-care law “is not a panacea but a huge step in the right direction,” Huttler said.