Thursday, June 28, 2012

Get it first -- we'll get it right later

For several minutes on this historic morning, viewers of Fox News and CNN believed the Supreme Court had struck down the Affordable Care Act, because that's what those networks were saying.

The problem, of course, was that Chief Justice John Roberts had just begun reading the majority decision he had written. He began by saying that, under the Commerce Clause, the mandate requiring citizens to purchase insurance was not constitutional. Up came the headlines saying the ACA had been overturned and on went pundits. Until ...

Roberts kept on reading. By this time, copies of the decision were being handed out and folks were able to jump ahead to the climax. The first tipoff should have been who made up the majority -- the court's four liberals and Roberts. Eventually, Roberts got to the main point -- that the mandate was constitutional under the taxation powers of Congress.

Oops. Mandate upheld. One of the most significant Supreme Court rulings of our generation (I argue that Citizens United may turn out to be even more important over time, but that's for another day), and Fox and CNN got it wrong for several minutes.

This may seem a minor hiccup -- the two major cable networks getting the story exactly reversed, albeit for no longer than it takes to brew a couple cups of coffee. But it provides a couldn't-be-clearer look at much of what is wrong with major media journalism nowadays: Get it first, accuracy be damned. (It wasn't long ago that CNN started its coverage of the John Edwards verdict with a headline saying he'd been found guilty.)

It's easy to shrug this off. Oh, well, it was just a few minutes, then they got it right. The problem is, it's indicative of much deeper problems. It was also amusing to watch what happened next (some of this could be my imagination, but I don't think so). As it became clear that Obama had won big, the mood turned increasingly somber at Fox, while, it seemed to me, the CNN talking heads perked up.

It's a guarantee that the talk on Fox tonight will be of all the ways the world is coming apart, while the lefties on MSNBC will be dancing a conga line around the newsroom. At CNN, Jeffrey Toobin will be trying to explain how he could have been so wrong about the Supreme Court (he had predicted it would overturn the law) and Anderson Cooper will be sanguine, unless he starts to giggle uncontrollably.

But the larger issue is that news organizations continue to forsake accuracy for speed. Locally, some newspapers and TV stations continue to report stuff right off the police scanner. This information is always incomplete and nearly always just plain wrong. That isn't journalism, or at least it's not supposed to be.

Fox and CNN didn't perform well today, and we, their consumers, should insist they do better. We should do the same of our local news media.

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