The Spectacle Blog

Blowing the Call: In Defense of CNN and Fox News

By on 6.29.12 | 3:30PM

For several minutes yesterday, right around 10 a.m., CNN and Fox News had it wrong.

Both networks reported that the individual mandate in Obamacare was held unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. President Obama reportedly had the two networks on split screen, and, thus, thought he was watching his signature accomplishment go down in flames. CNN staff described the misstep as "humiliating," "shameful," and "embarrassing."

Obviously, there's no substitute for being right. But the networks' harshest critics probably don't understand the nature of court coverage. I'm no veteran legal reporter, but what I witnessed yesterday at the Supreme Court makes a strong argument for updating the method by which opinions are released and relayed.

There were a limited number of ticketed seats inside the courtroom for attorneys, VIPs, and highly credentialed press. My understanding is those people could not leave until the justices finished. Because no electronic devices were allowed inside, they were essentially incommunicado.

Connected to the pressroom, where reporters stashed their bags and computers, was an office where audio from the court was being fed into a speaker. No electronic devices allowed here either. So reporters lingered by the doorway, listened for a few minutes, and then dashed back to their laptops to tweet furiously.

Court staff had Xerox boxes filled with dozens of paper copies of the opinions, which were given out when the justices began addressing the case. Interns in skirts, blouses, and running shoes crowded around, and as soon as they had opinion in hand, they sprinted down the hall and outside to waiting camera crews.

Here's video of where Fox News went wrong. About 10 seconds in there's a woman near the steps of the Supreme Court, reading from a 193-page document that was probably delivered to her by a breathless 19-year-old literally 30 seconds before she went live.

Parsing information that fast is difficult in and of itself, even if the opinion is straightforward.

And this one wasn't. Most people expected a 5-4 or 6-3 decision; I don't think anyone called a 4-1-4 split. Moreover, the opinion is written with what folks in the news business call a "buried lede." In order to realize the individual mandate is upheld on a technicality as a tax, you first have to get through all the pages that knock down the government's core argument and state that the law cannot be upheld under the Commerce Clause.

In today's news environment, reporters have public spats over who tweeted the scoop 26 seconds faster, so it's understandable, if not excusable, that after reading a line like "the individual mandate is not a valid exercise of Congress's power..." one would shout "Unconstitutional!" into the mic.

Rather than ridiculing those who jumped the gun, journalists should be asking themselves: Is there a less insane way to do this? Hell, the difference between breaking the story and being a laggard could be that your chubby intern tripped on his own shoelaces.

Yet this is the world we live in. Jim Romenesko, who blogs about media, posts this note sent to him by Bloomberg News PR:

Just wanted to reach out about your post about the coverage of today’s Supreme Court health care ruling. You reference an email that notes that the AP first reported the decision — by our records, Bloomberg moved the story first at 10:07:31; the AP moved the story at 10:07:55. I’ve attached screen shots of both headlines with timestamps for your reference.

There are certainly arguments -- and strong ones -- against cameras in the court. But it would make sense in my mind to allow the networks to broadcast at least the audio of bench statements in high-profile cases.

The public would get the ruling straight from the justices' mouths, without the fog of war. I don't see Wolf Blitzer interrupting John Roberts, so we'd probably hear the justices in their entirety. And then journalists could go back to being judged by their ability to explain the context and consequences, instead of by the speed at which they can type.

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