BETWEEN THE LINES: Every American news enterprise was most likely primed and on its toes for last Thursday’s landmark Supreme Court of the United States’ (SCOTUS) decision on federal health care. It was perhaps SCOTUS’ most anticipated ruling since it ruled on the Bush v. Gore 2000 election.
Yet, there was a parallel story that almost got lost in the frenzy of reporting and reaction to the court’s 5-to-4 decision, which ruled that the Affordable Care Act is constitutional. Two of the three 24/7 cable news networks jumped the gun with “breaking news” headlines that the nine justices rejected the law.
Soon after the 193-page decision was released, and journalists streamed out of the Supreme Court building to deliver the news, CNN and Fox News — in their eagerness to be the first to inform waiting audiences — incorrectly reported that the healthcare mandate had been struck down.
Not since the inaccurate Chicago Tribune front page headline, “Dewey Defeats Truman,” in the 1948 presidential election, has a news organization been so humiliated.
CNN’s on-screen scroll read: “Supreme Court finds measure unconstitutional.” Fox News, simultaneously, ran an all-caps scroll: “Supreme Court finds health care mandate unconstitutional.”
With the White House figuratively holding its breath for news coming out of the court, reports indicated that they were momentarily jarred by the flawed premature reports. Reportedly, a few delighted Republicans and Tea Party members hastily tweeted the incorrect news.
It was soon discovered, however, that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld most of President Barack Obama’s healthcare overhaul, giving him a crucial election-year success and preserving most of a law that expands insurance to millions of people and transforms an industry, which comprises 18 percent of the nation’s economy.
CNN, which recently received its lowest ratings in 21 years, subsequently apologized, admitting “it regrets it didn’t wait to report out the full and complete opinion regarding the mandate.”
Fox, however, was less contrite, in acknowledging it failed to read past the first page.
“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… Fox reported the facts, as they came in.”
That’s like impulsively reporting one team was on its way to victory after it scored nine runs in the first inning, then updating the score after the other team scored two runs in each of the last five innings to win, 10 to 9.
The court’s lengthy ruling made the urge to report from a single page a major journalistic faux pas. It also spotlighted the quandary that journalism has increasingly faced in the last 20 years. As the need for instantaneous and 24/7 news has mushroomed, an assorted blend of sources — from established news organizations, blogs, new media and tweets — are involved in the existing competitive environment. Yet, the failure of ‘Fast Food News,’ as it is sometimes derisively referred — to accurately report, fact-check and confirm complex stories, before rushing to report a story — has diminished the profession’s integrity, quality and respect.
What is often labeled “breaking news” is not always the case. Routinely, there’s nothing new or special to report. It’s not the fault of the media when news isn’t forthcoming, but in order to keep a story fresh and viewers glued to their sets, 24/7 news groups commonly resort to fresh, albeit trivial, tidbits to update a story.
For instance: As words scrawl across the screen, the on-air news anchor reports, “The heat wave has started to abate as local temperatures dropped from 99 to 98 degrees.”
A fact of little consequence.
The GOP said Friday it will vote to repeal the health care law in Congress on July 11. Though every news organization will want to report that breaking news, too, let’s hope they are more concerned with getting it right than reporting it first and blowing it again.
As we celebrate America’s 236th birthday on Wednesday, when you turn to the internet, television, radio or your daily newspaper for news, be grateful for freedom of the press. And, despite infrequent mistakes, don’t condemn a profession that doggedly pursues its mission to uphold a cornerstone of our democracy.
On the other hand, with the sanction that gives the media virtually unrestricted authorization to spread the news comes enormous responsibility and accountability.
While journalism may be the first rough draft of history, credible, reliable journalists — regardless of the medium — scrambling to satisfy the impatience of audiences, must never tolerate flagrant errors in the headlong rush to report and circulate breaking news.
Neil S. Friedman is a veteran reporter and photographer, and spent 15 years as an editor for a Brooklyn weekly newspaper. He also did public relations work for Showtime, The Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson. Friedman contributes a weekly column called “Between the Lines” on life, culture and politics in Sheepshead Bay.
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