A version of this column originally appeared in The Daily Beast
Outrageous mistakes in cable-network coverage of last week’s Obamacare decision should raise major concerns about far more consequential errors that easily could mar election-night reporting this November. And while erroneous announcements by Fox News and CNN say something deeply unsettling about the current state of broadcast journalism, those same humiliations convey a profoundly reassuring message about the Supreme Court itself.
When two of the nation’s most influential news organizations both misinformed the public (briefly) about the very essence of the court’s ruling, it’s a powerful indication that no one in media or politics received an advance tip-off about what the justices were going to announce. In other words, the nation’s most powerful judicial institution remains an admirably leak-proof operation. Leading analysts never anticipated that the chief justice would find a taxing-power justification for Obamacare, so Fox and CNN both rushed to the mistaken conclusion (and to epically embarrassing headlines) that since the justices found no authorization under the Commerce Clause, the Affordable Care Act had failed to pass constitutional muster altogether. Within 10 minutes, after more accurate assessment of the text of the big decision, both news outlets had corrected their blunders. But the fact that they had gotten it so terribly wrong at the outset indicated that they had never received advance notice of the decision’s substance. At a time when both the legislative and executive branches of government engage in inexcusable, self-serving leaks that undermine national security and even put American lives in danger, it’s praiseworthy that the highest court in the land scrupulously kept its own counsel on a matter of impassioned public interest. Neither law clerks, nor secretaries, nor computer hackers, nor any of the nine justices themselves defused the element of surprise in Chief Justice Roberts’ startling decision. Regardless of one’s response to the substance of his judgment, the maintenance of complete secrecy in the face of relentless media probes provided an impressive demonstration of institutional integrity for a court whose battered reputation the chief seemed obsessed with repairing and defending.