How CNN Got It Wrong

By Alex Weprin 

“We want to reset what has just happened,” Wolf Blitzer said on CNN at 11 AM.

Blitzer was refreshing viewers on the events that transpired this morning with the Supreme Court effectively upholding President Obama’s healthcare reform law. It could also be seen as something of a metaphor for CNN, which needed a refresh after erroneously reporting that the individual mandate had been overturned.

CNN released a statement apologizing for the error:


“In his opinion, Chief Justice Roberts initially said that the individual mandate was not a valid exercise of Congressional power under the Commerce Clause. CNN reported that fact, but then wrongly reported that therefore the court struck down the mandate as unconstitutional. However, that was not the whole of the Court’s ruling. CNN regrets that it didn’t wait to report out the full and complete opinion regarding the mandate. We made a correction within a few minutes and apologize for the error.”

After Blitzer’s introduction at the top of the hour, he threw to Kate Bolduan standing outside the Supreme Court, who walked viewers through what had just happened. She said Supreme Court producer Bill Mears was sending the information about the decision to her and other reporters (appearing to place the burden of the incorrect information on his shoulders), although Blitzer cut her off to throw to Senator Tom Harkin at a rally by the court.

Unfortunately, the Harkin feed didn’t have any good audio, so Blitzer returned to Bolduan. A few minutes later, John King and Jeffrey Toobin (making his first appearance since the ruling) appeared on camera to explain what happened inside the courtroom. The issue, according to Toobin, was that Chief Justice Roberts began to read the decision, and it sounded like it would be overturned. He then took “a left-hand turn” and upheld the law.

Given that the popular opinion among cable news talking heads–including Toobin–was that it would be overturned, CNN staffers may have been primed for that result. A source at CNN tells TVNewser that they had a number of stories ready to go, depending on how the Supreme Court ruled.

As we noted this morning, CNN was not alone with its incorrect reporting, but it had a disproportionate impact. CNN not only reported the wrong information on-air, it also did so on its extremely popular website, on social media, and in email blasts. All of those outlets would push out corrections once the actual result was confirmed.

It was an embarrassing moment for the channel, which has always prided itself on being the place for fair, accurate news rather than opinion. That reputation is a big part of the reason why the backlash online has been focused more on CNN than Fox News, and the other outlets that got it wrong at first. Buzzfeed’s Michael Hastings has collected anonymous quotes from CNN staffers lambasting the network for how it handled the situation.

Among those criticizing CNN were some AP staffers, who gloated on social media platforms about “getting it right.” An AP editor would have to send out a note telling them “That’s not the impression we want to reflect as an organization.” CNN dropped its subscription to the AP in 2010.