The Media Mess Behind the Health Care Ruling

Both CNN and Fox were concerned first and foremost with getting the decision right. Before concluding that their errors were obvious, recognize that one of the best lawyers in America made the same mistake. At 10:08:04, a runner for CBS News reached the Courthouse steps, handing one copy of the opinion to Jan Crawford and another to a brilliant and deeply respected lawyer who had been directly involved in the case (on the side of the challengers), and whom Crawford had asked to stand with her as an analyst. He got the opinion at 10:08:07, and twenty-five seconds later (10:08:32) said (you can hear it on the CBS broadcast video if you listen very closely) “the mandate is invalid.”

But Crawford was focused on reading the opinion herself, so she either did not hear him or did not immediately process what he said. Impressively, the lawyer did not stop for even a heartbeat of congratulations on his apparent victory; he kept reading. In a verbatim reprise of the CNN conference call, he immediately said (at 10:08:44) “wait, wait” and then: the mandate must be “construed as a tax if reasonable” and “it is upheld as a tax.”

Crawford quickly closed her first report from the steps by saying the Court “may have” upheld the mandate. After a break in which she read more and consulted with the attorney, she correctly reported the ruling, well before CNN and Fox clearly corrected themselves.

If you wondered how CNN and Fox News initially got the health care mandate ruling wrong, today’s must-read is this second-by-second account by SCOTUSblog of how different news organizations went about reporting one of the most anticipated Supreme Court decisions in recent history (set aside at least a half hour of reading time—it’s a doozy, but worth it). As you can see from the excerpt above, CBS News also initially got the Court’s decision wrong, but they were able to quickly correct themselves by having a hard copy of the ruling and an expert with them on hand. CNN and Fox News both rushed to report the story without getting a full analysis of the Court’s opinion. The conflicting reports were exacerbated by the Supreme Court’s decision not to email its opinion to members of the press, saying it would load the decision onto its website for everyone to see. The site crashed, of course, so people had to rely on the media to learn about the decision, which was unfortunate, and embarrassing in some cases.

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