Although we have three televisions in the newsroom, I wasn’t watching any of them at 10 a.m. on June 28.
We knew the Supreme Court was set to announce its ruling on President Obama’s health care law around 10, and I was reading through the rapid posts at the SCOTUSBlog and refreshing the Associated Press feeds so I could be ready to post the first write-through AP moved.
It took AP just a couple minutes to move its first few paragraphs after Chief Justice Roberts announced the 5-4 ruling; I grabbed the story and a couple pictures, posted them on the paper’s site, and then took a look at Twitter to see what the reaction was.
I found some discussion about the opinion, sure, but most of the talk was about how CNN had butchered the announcement. The network had jumped on Roberts’ first few words — which said the individual mandate didn’t meet the tests necessary to be constitutional under the commerce clause — and reported that the individual mandate had been ruled unconstitutional.
A few paragraphs later, though, Roberts’ opinion states that the mandate is, in fact constitutional, but CNN was in enough of a hurry that its on-air folks apparently couldn’t wait to get it right.
Hooboy. I checked CNN’s site and found the above (the green highlights are mine). CNN continued to bury themselves for minutes, even going as far as letting Wolf Blitzer start consulting with the network’s mind-numbing array of talking heads about the impact of the devastating political loss for Obama.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, I found out later that CNN’s chief rival, Fox News, hadn’t fared any better. I didn’t see the broadcast, but the screen cap above pretty clearly illustrates that the Fair and Balanced team screwed it up as well.
By themselves, the errors were bad enough. But one of those networks made their mistake infinitely worse later in the day. CNN — which apparently hung with the erroneous report longer than Fox did — issued a correction and an unattributed apology:
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.
Fox, as it does, took a different tack in addressing its error. Michael Clemente, the network’s executive vice president of news, issued this statement:
We gave our viewers the news as it happened. When Justice Roberts said, and we read, that the mandate was not valid under the commerce clause, we reported it. Then when we heard and read that the mandate could be upheld under the government’s power to tax, we reported that as well.
That noise you just heard was my head exploding. But we’ll get to that in a second.
First, let’s talk about the mistakes themselves. I’ve never worked at an organization anywhere near the size of CNN or Fox News, but the basic principles of journalism are the same whether we’re talking about a television news network or a medium-sized newspaper: Be right. And if you can, be first.
Note the order there. If you’re in such a hurry that you screw up the facts, it doesn’t matter how quickly you got it on the air or on the site. You’re wrong. Period.
Working with the paper’s website has made me more aware of the importance of timing, but it’s also made more aware of the caution necessary when we’re rushing. If I can confirm that there’s been an accident and that the coroner has been called to the scene, it’s safe for me to report THOSE TWO THINGS ONLY. It’s a pretty good assumption that someone is dead, but it’s still an assumption; I’m not writing that someone is dead until somebody — a cop, the coroner, one of our photographers — tells me there’s a body or until I see it myself.
After hearing Roberts say the mandate wasn’t valid under the commerce clause, CNN and Fox both made assumptions as well and those assumptions bit them both. If the reporters in Washington had continued listening rather than making those assumptions, I wouldn’t be writing this post.
The next thing has to do with a pretty basic tenet of journalism ethics. When you make a factual error, you correct it, and when you make a correction, you do it in a way that is transparent. CNN, to its credit, not only corrected its error but recognized that it was significant enough that it also issued an apology. It’s still irritating to me that the network made such an egregious — and avoidable — error in the first place, but once it happened, fixing it and moving on is really the only public course to take (I assume there are things going on behind the scenes to ensure something that stupid will never happen again). CNN swallowed hard and did what it had to do. Good.
Mr. Clemente, on the other hand, comes off looking like a kid whose hand was caught in the cookie jar and then denied it was ever there. Let’s repeat that basic tenet of journalism ethics: When you make a factual error, you correct it.
Fox didn’t do that. In his statement Clemente said his network reported the facts as they happened. Take one more look at the headline in the above screencap. At no point did anyone connected with the court say the legislation had been ruled unconstitutional, and that makes the headline wrong. Period. If the headline had read that the individual mandate was invalid under the commerce clause, it would have been accurate, maybe — MAYBE — Clemente’s stunningly arrogant statement would have been appropriate.
It didn’t. And when the executive vice president of Fox News had an opportunity to simply, quietly correct the error his network made and move on, he failed. Badly.
You guys are more than capable of drawing your own conclusions about the ideologies and motivations that drive our cable news networks; that’s not the point of this post. But on a day when the two biggest cable networks each made what had to be one of the biggest errors in their histories, only one of them handled the mistake as a serious news organization would.
The other? If I needed a reason to write it off, what it did on June 28 would be it.