The Definitive Story On What Happened When The Supreme Court Ruled on Healthcare

By Alex Weprin 

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SCOTUSBlog, which absolutely owned coverage of the recent Supreme Court decision on President Obama’s healthcare reform law, has a “tick tock” of what went down. It is long (7,000 words!) and incredibly thorough, detailing what was happening in the courtroom, in the press room in the White House and at many of the TV networks.

It also describes, in excruciating detail, exactly what went wrong (and what went right) with the media’s coverage of the decision. SCOTUSBlog actually had a conference call set up and allowed media organizations to listen in. Two that did not participate: CNN and Fox News, both of which mistakenly reported that the Court had overturned a key provision in the bill, when it actually upheld it as a tax.

The post explains exactly how Fox and CNN blew the initial calls, and for exactly how long.

Some highlights:

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.


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.

Those errors were avoidable, and were in fact avoided by others. The wire services’ Supreme Court reporters were very experienced in breaking news reporting, and they got it right. Other news sources adapted: they simply sat out the uncertainty of the first few minutes (NPR and The New York Times), set up a system in which they would take the time to read the decision more carefully before reporting (NBC), or augmented their team with an expert (CBS). In a novel twist, C-SPAN had simply put the Live Blog on television.

CNN in particular should have told its viewers and readers more quickly about its own serious doubts about its initial reporting. By 10:12 at the latest, CNN was alone in seriously suggesting that the mandate might have been invalidated. The network’s on-air team responsibly hedged throughout the entire process. But by 10:14, they should have been told not to claim that there were wildly conflicting reports about whether the mandate had been invalidated – the only reports on its side were its own, or echoes of its first reports bouncing around Twitter and blogs.

The entire item is a must-read, check it out here.