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.
Meanwhile, the reputation of cable-news outlets received a few dents with their erroneous announcements, but for the most part these networks damaged no one but themselves. Yes, a few politicians rushed precipitously to microphones to hail or lament the purported demise of Obamacare, but they quickly corrected themselves and put the blame on “the lame-stream media” (favorite target of conservatives) or on Fox News (favorite target of everyone else). But even if the sloppy performance last Thursday morning won’t become a big chapter in media history, it should alert all responsible parties to the much greater dangers looming in November. Incorrect reporting on an already rendered Supreme Court decision won’t change a jot or tittle of that ruling but misleading, premature projections on election night can do serious damage to the electoral process.
The miserably mishandled reporting of the Bush–Gore battle on November 7, 2000, provides the most painful proof of the destructive power of such media mistakes. As it happened, I participated personally in some of the on-air embarrassment.
After finishing my midday, nationally syndicated radio broadcast, I spent another six hours hosting election-night coverage for our local affiliate in Seattle. At 4:49 p.m. Pacific time, NBC called Florida for Al Gore and both CBS and ABC followed suit within three minutes. I announced the news to our listeners, together with the conclusion that Electoral College math made it virtually impossible for Bush to win a majority without carrying Florida. Within two hours, and with polls still open in the State of Washington and throughout the West, Vice President Gore himself joined me on the air and I congratulated him on his apparent status as president-elect. He chortled amiably, but then adopted his scolding kindergarten-teacher-tone to caution against premature pronouncements of victory while repeatedly urging his supporters to make their way to the polls while their votes still counted. Before we concluded the interview, CBS shocked the world by retracting the award of Florida’s electoral votes to Gore, a dramatic development I passed on to the vice president, live, on the air. As an enthusiastic Bush supporter, I could scarcely conceal my glee but the stolid Mr. Gore took the new information as proof of his point that the presidency still hung in the balance.
But even he would have been shocked that the issue would remain unresolved for another five weeks, especially since the networks all awarded Florida, and the presidency, to Bush by 11:20 p.m. Pacific time, or 2:20 a.m. in the nation’s capital.
In other words, with their three calls of Florida on election night, the nation’s top broadcast news organizations had all been wrong twice, and right only once: they were wrong when they projected Florida for Gore and wrong again when they gave it to Bush, and right only with their in-between position that the Sunshine State counted as much too close to call.
The point of this nostalgic digression involves the occasional real-world impact of media malfeasance. On the air in the weeks following the election, more than a dozen callers berated me for joining the journalistic herd in preemptively anointing Gore on election night. A typical complainant would declare, “After work, I was driving to the polling place and listening to the radio, but when I heard you calling Al Gore ‘president-elect,’ I turned right around and went home.” This mattered because of the freakishly close senatorial election in Washington State that year, with incumbent Republican Slade Gorton ultimately losing to Democratic challenger Maria Cantwell by a mere 2,229 votes, or one tenth of one percent of the electorate. Could the early assignment of Florida to the Al Gore column (even before all polls closed in Florida) have kept enough disheartened Republicans away from the voting booths in Washington to have swung the result in our state? It’s entirely conceivable, if unprovable—and a different outcome in the Gorton race would have given the GOP a 51-49 Senate majority, instead of the awkward 50-50 split that greeted President Bush when he finally arrived in Washington.
Meanwhile, it’s also possible that George W. himself might never have secured the presidency had the networks not declared him the unequivocal winner after midnight on November 7. If the unending Florida recounts had been perceived as a sincere attempt to determine the true winner of an uncertain election, rather than Al Gore’s sore-loser effort to undo a widely publicized, well-established result, the entire process might have unfolded with less acrimony, hysteria, and self-righteousness.
In contrast to the blown call regarding the Supreme Court’s health-care decision, flawed reporting on elections can change outcomes, not just public perceptions about the results. The motivation for journalists to rush to judgment remains the same, as media struggle with intense pressure to beat the competition (including the Internet) in announcing winners and losers. No network wants to be last–or even second–at declaring the eagerly awaited news about which team won the Super Bowl of politics. This helps to explain the odd tendency by prominent pundits to declare either Romney the inevitable victor (after grim new unemployment numbers emerge), or to pronounce Obama unbeatable (after the Supremes spared his health-care bill).
Throughout the process of covering this ferocious political fight and especially as Election Day draws closer, all serious and responsible news organizations ought to resist the temptation to try to lead the way on every big story, even those that may prove dubious or inaccurate. As Fox news and CNN discovered last week, it’s always better to be last with the truth than first with a mistake.