It is said that there are two things you do not want to see being made: sausage, and legislation. I’m of the opinion that a third thing on that list should be the news—you don’t want to see how a news story comes into being. But Tom Goldstein, the publisher of SCOTUSblog.com, wants you to see what happened behind the scenes last month in the national reporting of the Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act. In his in-depth post-mortem Goldstein (who has a dog in this fight, to be sure) and his staff pieced together what happened at CNN, Fox News Channel, the White House, and SCOTUSblog.com in the nine minutes between when the court’s decision was handed down and when the error-filled reporting of the decision ended, including how
- hackers tried to bring down SCOTUSblog
- the court’s own website failed due to the heavy traffic, so no one outside the court building could access the decision
- a lack of thoroughness led CNN and Fox to run with incorrect interpretations of the opinion, and
- people who’d seen those incorrect TV reports refused to believe they were incorrect when confronted with the truth
CNN and Fox News have come in for a lot of deserved criticism for initially reporting the story incorrectly. Yes, I know they were trying to get it first but so was everyone else, and they waited long enough to understand what the court had ruled before reporting it. In fact, Bloomberg was first—less than one minute after the chief justice began announcing the decision from the bench—and they got it right!
From what I learned in this piece, I find it disturbing just how much brain power was brought to bear by these two networks that day and still they got it wrong. Disturbing, but not surprising. Yes, people make mistakes; but people who care more for flash than for accuracy—for generating heat rather than light—are more likely to make careless mistakes. Avoiding careless mistakes is—or should be—of paramount importance in this business.
But both CNN and Fox exposed themselves to potential failure 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 (and the mandate won’t take effect until 2014), 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.
To put it another way: read the damn opinion before presuming to tell me what it says. That shouldn’t be too much to ask, whether reporting a Supreme Court decision or a school board meeting or a fender bender. Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel suggest that in order “to provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing,” which is the purpose of journalism, the journalist’s first obligation is to the truth. Sometimes that can take more than just a few minutes to learn, but we don’t mind waiting.