(LA Times) — The Supreme Court’s opinion had always promised to be confusing and complex. Unfortunately, seasoned journalists let their anxiety/enthusiasm/thirst-to-be-first overwhelm their better judgment Thursday morning.
Many who should have waited for clarity rushed to report that the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the individual mandate portion of President Barack Obama’s health care reform law, declaring that the heart of the bill had been gutted. That was exactly wrong — the law was upheld on a 5-4 vote.
While The Associated Press and many other outlets got it right, CNN and Fox News, two major TV news sources, blew it moments after the justices released their decision.
At 10:09 a.m. EDT, CNN sent out a breaking news alert: “The Supreme Court has struck down the individual mandate for health care — the legislation that requires all to have health insurance.”
TV screens tuned to CNN also saw an on-screen message that the individual mandate had been struck down. As Wolf Blitzer and John King discussed the mandate as the centerpiece of the president’s plan, and how it was the mechanism for payment, other outlets, and Twitter, where many also got it wrong initially, began contradicting them. (For a couple of minutes there, the Twittersphere was an incoherent mess, with so many conflicting tweets it was impossible to know exactly what happened.) Nine minutes after
CNN’s first news alert, at 10:18 a.m. EDT, the network sent out a retraction: “Correction: The Supreme Court backs all parts of President Obama’s signature health care law, including the individual mandate that requires all to have health insurance.”
Fox News also was similarly tripped up. Shortly after the decision came down, the Fox News chyron (the “headline” at the bottom of the screen) read “Supreme Court Finds Individual Mandate Unconstitutional.” Host Bill Hemmer, who appeared to be getting conflicting information, told viewers it could take several minutes to understand the court’s ruling.
Fox then change its message to “Supreme Court upholds parts and invalidates parts of health care law” as the camera cut to correspondent Shannon Bream outside the court.
Bream began speed-reading the decision out loud, frantically trying to figure out what the ruling said. Hemmer asked how many pages there were, and when she told him more than 100, he told her to keep reading and get back to them.
Meanwhile, in the studio, Judge Andrew Napolitano reading his laptop, quoted the lead from SCOTUSblog, saying the mandate had been upheld.
Indeed, people who did not want to be confused by what had always promised to be a complicated opinion turned in huge numbers to SCOTUSblog, a popular site known for its accurate, fast Supreme Court reporting.
Minutes before the Supreme Court released its opinion, SCOTUSblog publisher Tom Goldstein announced on the site’s live blog that more than 1,000 people per second were signing onto the blog. There were, at one point, 866,000 readers.
When the opinion came down, those readers were not confused at all.
At 10:07 a.m. SCOTUSblog reporter Amy Howe typed: “We have health care opinion.”
Exactly one minute later, she wrote, “The individual mandate survives as a tax.”