As we all wind down from the heady excitement of the Supreme Court ruling on health care yesterday, it is perhaps worth noting one minor detail: Breaking news is broken.
As the Most Anticipated Supreme Court Ruling of At Least This Week was unveiled, both CNN and FOX erroneously reported for several minutes that the mandate had been struck down.
This reveals one of two things.
A) There is no point, as Erik Wemple observes, in trying to come up with a scoop on news that is being released to the entire public at the same time. (“Breaking: The Vice President is clearing his throat! Breaking: Now Biden is using the word ‘and.’ Breaking: It looks like a consonant is about to come down the pike!”) At best, you will be right 18 seconds before anyone else. At worst, you will be CNN and FOX right now, pulling the equivalent of a “Dewey Defeats Truman” for the digital age.
B) John Roberts writes tricky, sneaky, not-to-be-trusted rulings, and he should apologize to the American people for burying his ledes. No one has made any mistakes!
Of the two news organizations, only one is currently running around with its tail between its legs, and it is not the one you would expect given the name.
Fox trumpeted forth its unerring rightness in a statement to Mediaite yesterday:
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. Bill Hemmer even added, be patient as we work through this. Then when we heard and read, that the mandate could be upheld under the government’s power to tax, we reported that as well—all within two minutes.
By contrast, one other cable network was unable to get their Supreme Court reporter to the camera, and said as much. Another said it was a big setback for the President. Fox reported the facts, as they came in.
I am only glad that it was not around to do this earlier.
“Breaking: Pickett’s Charge Going Really Well.” “Breaking: Abraham Lincoln Enjoys Our American Cousin.” “Breaking: Europe’s Great War Is Quick And Decisive.”
Why report what actually happened when you can relate what seemed to be happening at the time? As Jon Stewart quipped, this is what comes of trying to be “today's grand champion of news firstiness.”
Certain kinds of news are impossible to break to anyone. Big Events Happening In Real Time. These days, some of the people are watching all of the time. We are all watching the same things through slightly different windows, some affording more colorful views than others. Breaking News may be broken, but it’s not cracked so much as it is splintered into thousands of smaller pieces. And some of those splinters — Scotusblog, Bloomberg, to name just two — actually manage to get the news right the first time around.
News no longer even gives off the illusion of being a monolithic mass of information calmly distributed. Like those morning and afternoon and evening papers once frenetically dispensed by schoolboys in unbecoming hats, in the bygone days when criers shouted conflicting things at opposite ends of the town, dozens of institutions are striving to get there first with the mostest. On the bright side, the stampeding and shouting makes it easier to check. If you are standing triumphantly on a peak alone — or with FOX — chances are, you're on the wrong mountain.