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CNN, Fox jump the gun on Supreme Court health care decision

at 11:01 AM ET, 06/28/2012

Updated at 12:02 p.m.

For the second time this week, initial reports about the Supreme Court’s decision were flat wrong.

The complicated nature of the court’s decisions, along with the Twitter age and the race to be first, led at least two major news networks — CNN and Fox News — to mistakenly report Thursday morning that the individual mandate portion of President Obama’s health care law had been struck down.

The problem: The law and the mandate were actually upheld.

Here’s CNN, before and after:

The CNN news, in particular, quickly made the rounds and was re-tweeted frequently in the minutes before everyone realized that the mandate had actually been upheld.

Fox News didn’t tweet the faulty report, leaving less of a paper trail. But the network ran with the headline on their broadcast.

By 10:21 a.m., CNN had issued a correction on Twitter. But not before many tweeps had taken screenshots of the headline on its homepage — headlines that aren’t quite “Dewey Defeats Truman” but are still embarrassing.

The mistake appears to have resulted from the structure of the decision, which said the individual mandate wasn’t constitutional under the Commerce clause before saying it was constitutional as a tax.

But by first having read the Commerce part, the news organizations apparently thought the individual mandate had been struck down, not realizing that later parts of the opinion would uphold it.

CNN confirmed that’s what happened in a statement:

“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.”

In other words, in the rush to get the story out, headlines were written before the whole decision was processed. And when it comes to complex legal decisions, that’s asking for trouble.

There also was plenty of confusion on Monday, when the Supreme Court was handing down its decision on Arizona’s controversial illegal immigration law. Take a look at some of the disparate headlines in the minutes after the decision, with outlets uncertain whether key parts of the law were upheld or struck down.

UPDATE:ThinkProgress notes that The Huffington Post also got it wrong in a tweet.

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