CNN, Fox News credibility in question after Supreme Court ruling

Harry Truman holds up Chicago Daily Tribune headline that inaccurately reported his defeat in the 1948 presidential race. The Barack Obama mock photo courtesy of displays CNN’s inaccurate website post of the U.S. Supreme Court declaring the president’s health care law to be unconstitutional.

It’s what CNN and Fox News didn’t do about yesterday’s inaccurate reporting on the U.S. Supreme Court decision that will likely impact their credibility. More for CNN. Less for Fox News.

Got it first…Got it wrong
In the race to be first to report the court’s health care ruling CNN and Fox news got it wrong. They initially reported that the Obama administration’s health care law had been ruled unconstitutional by the high court.  Either CNN and Fox didn’t take the time to read the decision, didn’t understand it, or both.

CNN and Fox News initially got it wrong when they reported that the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down the key individual mandate provision in President Barack Obama’s healthcare law.

The trouble started shortly after 10 a.m. for CNN when Congressional correspondent Kate Boulduan reported that according to CNN producer Bill Mears, the individual mandate provision of “Obamacare” could not be upheld under the Commerce Clause.

CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer reacted: “Wow, that’s a dramatic moment,” he said as a “SUPREME CT. KILLS INDIVIDUAL MANDATE” chyron popped onto the TV screen.

CNN failed to discern that the individual mandate provision had been upheld by the court as a tax.

“The Justices have just gutted, Wolf, the centerpiece provision of the health care law,” John King said, adding that it was a “direct blow to President Obama.”

Later, Boulduan returned to correct her 10:07 report, calling the court’s decision “thick” and “legally dense.” Why didn’t Boulduan or someone else at CNN ask someone at the U.S. Supreme Court to help interpret the ruling’s impact?

Fox News
At 10:08 Fox News anchor Bill Hemmer announced, “We have breaking news here on the Fox News channel. The individual mandate has been ruled unconstitutional.”

Thirty-six seconds later Fox News reporter Shannon Bream , clutching pages of the ruling in her hands, read a section of the decision which was penned by Chief Justice John Roberts. Bream reported, “He (Justice Roberts) says the individual mandate cannot be sustained under Congress’ power to regulate commerce. That means the mandate is gone.”

One Washington insider noted something I had missed: The Wall Street Journal and Fox News are both owned by News Corp. The Journal got the Supreme Court ruling right and they got it right shortly after the court’s Thursday decision. Fox News didn’t.

Damaged goods
CNN and Fox News put being first above getting it right.  Their viewers were poorly served as a result. The credibility of their news staff suffers. It’s not poor journalism. It’s not journalism at all.

The Washington insider also noted these news organizations, had they done their reporting homework, should have known an alternative argument had been advanced in support of the individual mandate provision and waited to hear the ruling on that argument before broadcasting any bottom-line conclusion.

The Fox News view
I believe most core Fox News viewers discount the muffed handling of the decision because it squares nicely with their view of the Fox News brand of reporting. That is to say Fox News’ reporting runs counter to many mainstream journalism rules of accountability. 

Fox knows this. When it makes inaccurate statements it doesn’t have the same impact on Fox News ratings as it would on CBS, NBC or ABC News. This was reflected in Fox News’ Executive Vice President of News Editorial Michael Clemente’s statement after yesterday’s mistake:

Fox News Executive Vice President of News Editorial Michael Clemente (CREDIT: ABC/ STEVE FENN)

    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. Bill Hemmer even added, be patient as we work through this. Then when we heard and read, that the mandate could be upheld under the government’s power to tax, we reported that as well—all within two minutes.

    By contrast, one other cable network was unable to get their Supreme Court reporter to the camera, and said as much. Another said it was a big setback for the President. Fox reported the facts, as they came in. – Fox News Executive Vice President of News Editorial Michael Clemente

CNN spin
Most CNN viewers, on the other hand, probably won’t forget the inaccurate reporting by the cable news network. They tend to be more ideologically diverse as a core audience.

CNN is the original 24 hour news network.  Like me, I suspect many viewers believe CNN’s best journalism and timely, dependable, accurate reporting are in its past.  What’s worse, I, and I suspect many CNN viewers, see this week’s blunder as further evidence that CNN doesn’t seem eager to correct this negative perception. 

This is one important reason I believe CNN’s sinking ratings ship continues to take on water. According to the New York Daily News, in the second quarter of this year CNN averaged 446,000 total viewers in prime time. That was down 35 percent from the second quarter of 2011.

Splashy promotions touting CNN’s global leadership in news coverage won’t overcome reporting mistakes like the ones that happened yesterday.  Nor do corrections such as the one issued by CNN after the Supreme Court health care ruling reporting meltdown:

In his opinion, Chief Justice Roberts initially said that the individual mandate was not a valid exercise of Congressional power under the Commerce Clause. CNN reported that fact, but then wrongly reported that therefore the court struck down the mandate as unconstitutional. However, that was not the whole of the Court’s ruling. CNN regrets that it didn’t wait to report out the full and complete opinion regarding the mandate. We made a correction within a few minutes and apologize for the error.

Fixing it
Right now, it sucks to be CNN. I know a few CNN employees who reluctantly admit as much.

Apologies alone though won’t convince most CNN viewers the cable network cares enough to fix what’s broken. Accountability will, even at the risk of CNN news employees being suspended or losing their jobs if they report inaccurate information.

What will it take for CNN to win back viewers? I believe CNN will have to prove its reporting is accurate and dependable, its journalistic standards consistently applied, even if at the cost of being first.

That’s not a profound statement. For CNN the challenge is to avoid the competitive trap of rushing to be first, if only by a few seconds, versus getting it right the first time.

CNN Senior Vice President and Washington bureau chief Sam Feist

Today, Politico reported that CNN Senior Vice President and Washington bureau chief Sam Feist sent a memo to bureau staff announcing that CNN was ‘looking into’ its inaccurate report about yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling on healthcare. “Today we failed to adhere to our own standard, namely it’s better to be right than to be first,” wrote Feist. “We take mistakes seriously, especially mistakes on such important stories. We are looking into exactly what happened and we will learn from it.”

I hope CNN will be equally transparent with its viewers in this review. The viewers are the ultimate boss in passing judgement on a news organization’s success or failure.

Getting a scoop on an important story like yesterday’s historic Supreme Court ruling is memorable stuff; for journalists, their employers, and the audiences they serve. Getting it wrong though in the quest to “get it first” creates a memory far more damaging and lasting. It sends a message to viewers that the news organization they thought they could believe, can’t be believed at all.

About Bernard McCoy

My views are my own and not a reflection of my employer. I'm a professor of Journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I've also been a working journalist for the past 29 years. I have covered news stories in war zones, reported on human and natural disasters, presidential conventions, a presidential inauguration and the September 11th, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. My career experiences include work as an award-winning documentary producer, television news reporter, photographer, producer, and anchor. I worked at WIBW-TV, Topeka, KS., KCTV, Kansas City, MO, WKBD-TV, Detroit, MI., WILX-TV, Lansing, MI. and WBNS-TV, Columbus, OH. I have also worked as a contributing reporter for The Columbus Dispatch, Associated Press, CBS, CNN, the Ohio News Network and lecture at the Kosovo Institute of Journalism and Communications. I have a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and a master’s degree in telecommunications management from Michigan State University.
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