News organizations don’t all get ruling right

NEW YORK — A rush to quickly report the Supreme Court’s decision on President Barack Obama’s health care law on Thursday tripped up some news organizations that got it wrong and had to quickly correct themselves.

Both CNN and Fox News Channel initially reported incorrectly that the law’s central provision, requiring virtually all Americans to have health insurance, had been struck down. In an apology, CNN said it “regrets that it didn’t wait to report out the full and complete opinion regarding the mandate.”

The Associated Press got it right, as did other news organizations and broadcast television outlets, generally. A minute after the AP flash alert at 10:07 a.m., The New York Times asked its readers for time, with Washington bureau chief David Leonhardt posting that reporters and editors were analyzing the decision.

“Once we are comfortable with its basic meaning, you can expect a torrent of coverage,” he said. The Times next sent news via Twitter at 10:20.

It was a particularly embarrassing muff for CNN, which has suffered through one of its worst ratings quarters in several years, primarily due to a paucity of big news. The network eagerly awaited the Supreme Court’s decision Thursday, running a “countdown clock” on its screen during the morning ticking down to 10 a.m.

Anchor Wolf Blitzer and reporter Kate Bolduan quickly reported that the health care law was struck down, based on a reading of Chief Justice John Roberts’ decision that the mandate was not a valid exercise of congressional power under the commerce clause. Later in the reading, the justices found other reasons for upholding that portion of the law.

CNN’s screen read: “Supreme Ct. Kills Individual Mandate.”

“The court striking down that mandate is a dramatic blow to the president,” said John King, CNN reporter.

The network also sent an email reporting that the mandate had been struck down and posted the news on Twitter.

By 10:13 a.m., some doubt had seeped in and the onscreen headline read: “Supreme Court Rules on Obama Law.”

“Let’s take a deep breath and see what the justices actually decided,” Blitzer said. “It could be more complicated than we originally thought.”

By 10:15, the network was reporting that the entire law had been upheld, and King called it “a huge, huge victory for President Obama.”

Fox made the same initial mistake, with Bill Hemmer touting the “breaking news” that the individual mandate had been declared unconstitutional. Fox anchor Bret Baier tweeted the same news. Within two minutes, however, Megyn Kelly was citing the SCOTUSblog in casting doubt on that interpretation, even ordering producers to change an onscreen headline that read: “Supreme Court Finds Health Care Individual Mandate Unconstitutional.”

“We’re trying to do the best we can,” Hemmer said.

Michael Clemente, Fox executive vice president of news and editorial, was unapologetic. “We gave our viewers the news as it happened … Fox reported the facts, as they came in.”

Several members of Congress tweeted incorrect information about the ruling, perhaps based on the initial misreading by cable networks.

Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of California called it a “big win for liberty and the Constitution. Rep. Tom Rooney (R, Fla.) said it was “great news for the American people, victory for constitution.”

On CBS, Jan Crawford spoke on the air as she scanned the decision. “It appears, based on our quick summary, that the mandate, the individual mandate at the heart of this case may be in jeopardy under one provision of the constitution but they may have upheld the mandate under another provision.”

ABC initially bobbled one detail — calling the ruling 6-3 instead of 5-4 — but correctly reported the outcome in a special report by Terry Moran. NBC’s Pete Williams said that “the bottom line here is the Supreme Court has upheld the health care law.”

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