Here is the banner stripped right now at the very top of CNN.com:
Correction: The Supreme Court backs all parts of President Obama’s signature health care law.
Yes, the network that is used to being first among cable news networks to big stories originally reported something far different — that the court had invalidated the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act. Actually, here’s the headline that had been stripped across its top:
The Supreme Court has struck down the individual mandate for health care.
Someone needs to tell CNN: There is no such thing as fashioning a scoop over something that’s released to the public. Here I cite New York University professor Jay Rosen, who repeatedly chants about how cheap it is when news outlets brand as “exclusives” bits of information that everyone will know in a short time anyhow. This afternoon, one day from now, one week from now: No one will notice, care or otherwise take heed that your outlet was the first to report on a Supreme Court decision. There’s not an outlet that’ll own that news. But much heed will be taken of a quick and mistaken interpretation of such a decision.
CNN is a huge outlet that’s due to rake in profits of $600 million this year. It has oodles of reporters and producers and news executives, all with grand credentials and deep history in the news business. Yet it could have learned a lesson from cute little SCOTUSblog.com, which wrote on its liveblog: “It’s very complicated, so we’re still figuring it out.”
(Update: 11:30 a.m.) Fox News did pretty much the same thing, presenting broadcast viewers this chyron:
(Update: 12:07 p.m.): CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin has issued a long on-air explanation about the mistake, in which he explains that Chief Justice John Roberts started out by addressing the Affordable Care Act’s individual health-care mandate. Toobin says of Roberts’s words: “And he basically adopted in its entirety the argument of the challengers to the law. He said this was outside the federal government’s power.”
But then(!) Roberts reversed course, addressing the government’s taxing power, the avenue through which the court held the mandate okay under the Constitution. In a fit of self-justification, Toobin notes, “It was just an extraordinary and such a swirling turn of events in the course of really about 10 minutes.”
Sorry, but “swirling” describes Hurricane Andrew. “Swirling” describes a Dan Brown novel. By deploying this dramatic language, Toobin attempts to minimize the mistake by attributing it to mass confusion. Yet there appears to have been nothing authentically “swirling” about what actually went down. A simple “twist” sounds more like it, wherein Roberts appeared to be going one way with the ruling but ended up going the other way.
CNN has issued a statement saying essentially the same thing:
In his opinion, Chief Justice Roberts initially said that the individual mandate was not a valid exercise of Congressional power under the Commerce Clause. CNN reported that fact, but then wrongly reported that therefore the court struck down the mandate as unconstitutional. However, that was not the whole of the Court’s ruling. CNN regrets that it didn’t wait to report out the full and complete opinion regarding the mandate. We made a correction within a few minutes and apologize for the error.
That’s a good correction, as corrections go. But here’s the thing: A network like CNN employs an expert like Toobin because an expert like Toobin knows that these things are complicated, that Supreme Court justices are creative with legal rationales and that the whole impact of a ruling or decision cannot be divined from just a partial reading.
For more on the Supreme Court ruling: