Some media jump to conclusions on the high-court ruling

Posted: June 30, 2012

It's the meme of the moment.

Remember that famous 1948 shot of President Harry S. Truman holding up the Chicago Tribune with the headline "Dewey Defeats Truman"? Journalism gone wrong.

Now, thanks to Photoshop and a clever man named Gary He, we have the image of President Obama gleefully holding up an iPad bearing the headline "Mandate Struck Down" from CNN's website.

That image, tweeted and posted across the Web, captured much of what happened Thursday, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the Affordable Care Act. By 10 a.m., a storm front of anticipation had built around the decision two years in the making. Twitterverse, blogosphere, radio, TV - all were pressing to be first to know and tell.

The next 20 minutes were some of the craziest in media history. They left a lot of reputations in the road.

The Associated Press, the New York Times, Bloomberg News, and the blog SCOTUSblog.com got it right. (The Times didn't rush; magisterially, it told the world to wait while it digested the info.) Fox News and CNN got it wrong. (Following CNN, other news venues, including Philly.com, posted incorrect tweets and, minutes later, deleted or corrected them.)

"With the way the media world has been trending, we're in a situation where misinformation thrives," said Victor Pickard, associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

Understandable, maybe, that some members of Congress, party hats already on, might jump the gun. Smart money said the ruling would be a conservative victory.

Rep. Aaron Schock (R., Ill.) was among the first to mal-tweet: "Individual Mandate ruled unconstitutional . . . still developing. . . . " It developed so much that the tweet was deleted after a minute. Rep. Justin Amash (R., Mich.) tweeted, "This is a big win for #liberty & the #Constitution" at 10:07, and busy Darrell Issa (R., Calif.) retweeted it. Both gone nine minutes later.

But CNN? As of 10:07, Kate Bolduan was telling anchor Wolf Blitzer, based on a prompt from Supreme Court producer Bill Mears, that the court "has struck down the individual mandate, the centerpiece of the health-care legislation." On the "lower third" of the TV screen: "Supreme Ct. Kills Individual Mandate." On the website - remember the meme? - the now-notorious "Mandate Struck Down" went up.

What did CNN misread? Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who read the stunning decision, said the mandate mightnot be upheld under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. But he did uphold it under the Taxation Clause. "That's what happens when you go on the air after reading only the first three pages of a 193-page document," quipped Facebook user Thane Tierney of Los Angeles.

Fox anchor Bill Hemmer passed along the bad info. The headline: "Supreme Court Finds Health Care Individual Mandate Unconstitutional." Brett Baier tweeted it. Then Hemmer's cohost, Megyn Kelly, alertly saw something wrong. She cited SCOTUSblog.com and the Commerce/Taxation distinction and said, "We need to update our lower third because it may not be correct."

SCOTUSblog.com is drawing high praise for its quick and accurate posting. Lyle Denniston, a reporter there and also the National Constitution Center's adviser on constitutional literacy, said the SCOTUSblog.com staff, studied the issues for two years, "and we saw a way the court could uphold the law." The staff agreed "not to go with anything until we were content we really knew the decision," he said. Plus, the site got a new, bigger server, to absorb "more than one million hits" by early afternoon.

Anticipation spurred some ill-advised moves. "People, especially journalists, had been waiting so long for this decision," said Chris Harper, codirector of the Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab at Temple University. "People couldn't help themselves. They were just jumping the gun."

Annenberg's Pickard said, "The commercial pressure to be first, especially on dramatic stories like this, has lately led to some pretty vulnerable and visible errors." Zach Teutsch of Washington writes via Facebook: "Is this any different from 2000?" - referring to the too-early call on ABC and other outlets that Al Gore had won that year's presidential election. Teutsch blames the mainstream media's "culture of scooping."

"You have no time to think," Pickard said. "When you're going that fast, there's so much less vetting and editing." Harper said: "It's telling that some of the folks who got the story right waited until they'd read and understood it."

It's both ironic and right that the Obama of the "Obama-Dewey" image holds up the iPad, symbol of our networked, light-speed world - and, now, of the perils of moving in such fast company.


Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406 or jt@phillynews.com, or follow

on Twitter @jtimpane.

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