CNN, Fox News blew initial call, reporting heart of law had been gutted

  • June 29, 2012 - 12:36 AM

A momentous Supreme Court decision collided with a breathless, speed-obsessed media culture Thursday, resulting in botched cable TV coverage and a round of public mockery over the entire spectacle.

CNN and Fox News mistakenly reported the Affordable Care Act had been overturned before correcting themselves, albeit not quickly enough to ward off a round of derision. On Twitter, someone launched the hash tag "CNNHeadlines" and wags had at the self-proclaimed "most trusted name in news." Examples: "Identity of Luke Skywalker's Father Remains Mystery."

A mock image of Obama holding up the mistaken CNN headline -- like President Harry S. Truman showing off the mistaken "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline in 1948 -- rocketed around email inboxes.

CNN expressed regret for moving too hastily. Michael Clemente, executive vice president for news at Fox, did not apologize, saying the report merely followed the words of Chief Justice John Roberts as he announced his decision. Roberts first declared that the law would not be upheld under the commerce clause, before saying it passed muster under Congress' taxing authority.

Coverage of the court's methods can be extremely complex -- a challenge multiplied Thursday as reporters tried to instantaneously interpret the 193-page ruling. Misperceptions of how the court viewed the law began after oral arguments in March. Then, many observers interpreted tough questioning of Solicitor General Donald Verrilli as a sign the law was in peril. "This law looks like it's going to be struck down," legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said on CNN. On Thursday, he conceded that it was "a day for me to eat a bit of crow."

"It's the imperative of the instant-answer that causes it and sometimes there isn't an instant answer," longtime Supreme Court journalist Linda Greenhouse said. "Sometimes you have to stop and think."


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