NEW YORK – President Barack Obama worried and Republicans celebrated when they first heard the news. But not so fast: In the split-second rush to report the Supreme Court’s health-care decision Thursday, CNN and Fox News Channel got it wrong.
It was an excruciating test for reporters who were handed a 59-page decision choked with legalese and asked to report its meaning almost instantly.
Bloomberg News and The Associated Press were the first reporting the news – correctly, at 8:07 a.m. MST – that the court upheld most of Obama’s health-care overhaul and a mandate that nearly every American have health insurance. They were followed by Reuters and the SCOTUSblog.
The New York Times made a point of tweeting that reporters and editors were analyzing the decision and would write when they were comfortable that the nuances were correct. The paper didn’t tweet the news until 10:20 a.m.
CNN apologized for its error, saying it “regrets that it didn’t wait to report out the full and complete opinion” that upheld the mandate requiring virtually all Americans to have health insurance. Fox, however, insisted it was right. “Fox reported the facts, as they came in,” said network executive Michael Clemente.
The inaccurate reports were the first ones seen by Obama, who was watching four television monitors outside the Oval Office. White House Counsel Katherine Ruemmler came in moments later with the true story.
It was particularly embarrassing for CNN, which has suffered through one of its worst ratings quarters in several years, primarily because of a paucity of big news. The network eagerly awaited the court’s decision, scheduled for 10 a.m., running a “countdown clock” on its screen for hours.
Anchor Wolf Blitzer and reporter Kate Bolduan reported at 10:08 a.m. that the health-care law had been struck down, based on a reading of Chief Justice John Roberts’ decision that the mandate was not a valid exercise of congressional power under the commerce clause of the Constitution. The screen read: “Supreme Ct. Kills Individual Mandate.” The news was tweeted and emailed to the network’s followers.
“The court striking down that mandate is a dramatic blow to the president,” said CNN reporter John King.
By 10:13 a.m., some doubt had seeped in, and the onscreen headline read: “Supreme Court Rules on Obama Law.”
“Let’s take a deep breath and see what the justices actually decided,” Blitzer said. “It could be more complicated than we originally thought.”
Two minutes later, CNN reported the correct decision – the court had upheld the individual mandate, basing it not on the commerce clause but on Congress’ power of taxation. CNN then reported that the entire law had been upheld, with King calling it “a huge, huge victory for President Obama.”
On Fox, Bill Hemmer touted the “breaking news” that the individual mandate had been declared unconstitutional. A Twitter account run by Fox anchor Bret Baier’s show tweeted the same news. Within two minutes, however, anchor Megyn Kelly was citing SCOTUSblog’s report and ordered producers to change an onscreen headline that read: “Supreme Court Finds Health Care Individual Mandate Unconstitutional.”
“We’re trying to do the best we can,” Hemmer said.
The initial report on Baier’s Fox show Twitter feed was deleted, followed by the tweet: “Getting word that the individual mandate will survive as a tax – we are trying to work this out for you – more to come.”
Clemente, Fox executive vice president of news and editorial, was unapologetic.
“We gave our viewers the news as it happened,” he said.
Clemente said Hemmer reported that the mandate was not constitutional under the commerce clause, although the network’s reporting gave the impression that the mandate had been fully struck down.
Obama’s first news about the decision came from television monitors outside the Oval Office, where the cable channels were reporting that the mandate had been struck down, according to administration officials. Within moments, Ruemmler hurried toward the White House and flashed the president two thumbs up. She explained her reading, and Obama hugged her as Chief of Staff Jack Lew looked on.
Several members of Congress also tweeted incorrect information about the ruling. Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of California called it a “big win for liberty and the Constitution.” Florida Republican Rep. Tom Rooney tweeted that it was “great news for the American people, victory for constitution.” The politicians later removed the tweets from their Twitter feeds.
The Huffington Post’s politics Twitter feed first made the wrong call and corrected itself, saying “we jumped the gun” following the CNN and Fox News reports.
Caution was discussed ahead of time during several planning meetings at The New York Times, said Jim Roberts, assistant managing editor. The paper was willing to take a few extra minutes to make sure it had exactly the right interpretation, he said.
“It’s almost stupidly obvious to say, ‘We want to be right,’ but we want to be right,” he said.
The Associated Press – which delivered the news as a flash, its highest-priority designation – anticipated a complex decision, and its Washington staff prepared for weeks for the various rulings that might come down, said Kathleen Carroll, the news service’s senior vice president and executive editor.
“Our goal, as always: Get the facts and get them out quickly,” Carroll said in a memo to the staff. “Once again, the enduring lesson prevails: Expertise and preparation are what make us fast and accurate.”
ABC, CBS and NBC all interrupted programming for special reports and all generally got it right. The scene was reminiscent of the Supreme Court’s decision that decided the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, with reporters standing onscreen, frantically leafing through pages as they tried to read and interpret at the same time.
ABC’s Terry Moran had less than a minute to look at the decision before he was talking on the air to anchor George Stephanopoulos and he briefly vamped for time, saying “I’m just taking a quick look at it.”
Describing the difficulty of the process in an interview, he said, “you have to be confident enough to say, `I don’t know.”’
In this case, Moran quickly spotted that Roberts had decided the case in agreement with the court’s liberal justices, a sign that it was highly unlikely the health-care law had been overturned. ABC did bobble one fact initially, incorrectly saying the court’s decision was by a 6-3 vote instead of 5-4.
Moran said Thursday’s lesson to journalists should be “slow down.”
“I actually think the audience is much more interested in understanding than in seeing who finishes first in this case,” he said. “In this day and age, there are few true scoops. ... On an event like this, take a breath.”
CBS’ Jan Crawford made the right call while reading it on the air. NBC’s Pete Williams said that “the bottom line here is the Supreme Court has upheld the health-care law.”
The news media’s scrambling quickly became fodder for humor online.
Damon Lindelof, co-creator of the television show “Lost,” tweeted that “I am not turning off CNN until they TELL ME GORE WON FLORIDA!”
The website Gawker posted a photoshopped picture of a smiling Obama holding a tablet with CNN’s website headlined “Mandate struck down,” in a pose reminiscent of the famous photo of President Harry Truman holding up a newspaper with the incorrect “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline.
AP writers Frazier Moore, Jake Coyle, Jim Kuhnhenn and Amy Westfeldt contributed to this report.