Screen shot by Carlene Variyan, as posted on Twitter
No, folks, this is not 1948.
Within moments after CNN announced with urgency and breathtaking inaccuracy that the Supreme Court had overturned “Obamacare” Thursday morning, Twitter was chattering about it under the hashtag #cnnfail.
Had this been 1948, the damage would have been relatively contained to the consumers of one product. It was the Chicago Tribune that inaccurately reported the defeat of President Truman. He made it famous by smiling and holding the paper aloft for photographers. Otherwise, only a few people who got that first edition would have known about it. The paper quickly followed up with a corrected edition.
Had this even been 1981, the damage would have been minimal. When John Hinckley Jr. fired shots at President Reagan, several media sources reported that White House Press Secretary James Brady was dead. The mistake has been debated in journalism schools and is generally known, but in 1981 there weren’t many alternative ways to get the news. The story was corrected and people moved on.
No, this is 2012. CNN didn’t just report the wrong outcome of the most important U.S. Supreme Court decision in years. It sent that wrong information out to smart-phones in the pockets of countless average Americans, ringing alerts that made them look. There was no way to miss this one.
And even though it corrected the error seven minutes later, it couldn’t stop the avalanche of social media chatter that, while mostly snarky, was filled with the kind of sage wisdom one expects to hear in the halls of journalism schools.
Among the snarky was this message to CNN reporters from Elizabeth Weitzman, telling them not to worry: “Even if you lose your job, you can still have health insurance.”
Among the sage was this from James Poniewozik: “Report it right but 2 minutes late, no one will care in an hour. Report it wrong 2 minutes early, no one will forget.”
Anyone who reads the first pages of the 192-page ruling can quickly see what happened. Right on the second page, it says Chief Justice John Roberts finds, “… that the individual mandate is not a valid exercise of Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause.”
That looks like a rejection of the individual mandate.
It isn’t until page 4 that you find Roberts saying, “the individual mandate may be upheld as within Congress’s power under the Taxing Clause.”
I have some sympathy for the reporters trying to quickly make sense of it all for CNN. You don’t have to work long in this business before making embarrassing mistakes. However, that doesn’t make them any less serious, or less damaging to your reputation.
The good news for CNN is that the public has a fairly short memory. I didn’t see a lot of Twitter talk recalling that NPR falsely reported in 2010 that Ariz. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had been killed in the shooting that injured her in Tucson.
The bad news is that it will exist forever on the Internet. Today the news media is more competitive than ever before, and there is an urgency to be first. But the old-fashioned rules and virtues of good journalism also apply as never before.
As John Schwartz of the New York Times tweeted, “He who hesitates is smart.”
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Jay Evensen is the Senior Editorial Columnist of the Deseret News. He has nearly 40 years experience as a reporter, editor and editorial writer in Oklahoma, New York City, Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. He also has been an adjunct journalism professor at Brigham Young and Weber State universities.