The U.S. Supreme Court voted to uphold President Barack Obama's Affordable Health Care act in a landmark, and unexpected, decision Thursday morning. But for a short time, those following CNN and Fox News (including the leader of the free world himself) were led to believe that the central component of the health care law was dead.
Both cable news outlets confused an already confusing ruling, when each mistakenly reported that the Supreme Court had voted down the president's individual health care mandate -- which requires that nearly all American citizens obtain health insurance or face a financial penalty -- on the grounds that it was unconstitutional.
At 10:08 a.m. Eastern time, minutes after Chief Justice John Roberts began his announcement of the judgment, CNN published a breaking news alert: "The Supreme Court has struck down the individual mandate for health care - the legislation that requires all to have health insurance." At around the same time, the Fox News ticker broadcast the headline, Supreme Court Finds Individual Mandate Unconstitutional.
CNN quickly retracted the erroneous report: At 10:21 a.m., CNN Breaking News tweeted a link to an updated story, with the message: "Correction: The Supreme Court backs all parts of President Obama's health care law." Fox changed the headline to read Supreme Court upholds parts and invalidates parts of health care law, according to the Los Angeles Times.
According to ABC News, Obama was watching the coverage of the decision on a split-screen television featuring four networks when he saw the incorrect breaking announcements on the Fox News and CNN monitors.
Senior administration officials speaking to ABC News did not specify Obama's reaction to the hasty reports other than to say he was calm, but said there was some momentary confusion when, just minutes later, White House Counsel Kathy Reummler approached the president with the correct news.
The egregious error does not appear to be the result of the news outlets pulling the trigger on pre-prepared reports of possible rulings. It appears rather that journalists misapprehended Roberts' preamble to the decision as indicative of the ruling itself, when he reportedly explained that the individual mandate would have been deemed unconstitutional under the Commerce Clause, which states that Congress can regulate interstate commerce but cannot, in the court's opinion, force citizens to make a new purchase, thereby creating new commerce. As a Washington Post report points out, the ruling effectively limits the Constitution's Commerce Clause, by classifying the penalty for refusing to opt in to the individual mandate as a tax. Is it a loophole identified -- or created -- in order to uphold the Affordable Health Care act? That's a question that will likely be addressed. But for now, those who were involved in the erroneous reporting are leaning on the confusion to justify the error - not entirely unconvincingly.
Lisa Desjardins, a CNN radio reporter who passed on the incorrect headline on her Twitter feed, posted a follow-up message a short time later (after tweeting that she was mortified about posting the bad information) explaining some of the confusion. "Important to say that (obviously) this is a complicated ruling and Roberts' did say indiv. mandate could not stand under Commerce Clause," she wrote.
Both CNN and Fox have since released official statements addressing the mistake, citing the confusion around Roberts' statements.
From CNN: "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."
Fox News issued a somewhat less contrite explanation:
"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."
Indeed, while Fox News and CNN published nearly identical incorrect headlines, those listening to the audio on the Fox broadcast would likely have been less convinced of the report's conclusiveness. As the Los Angeles Times pointed out, Hemmer advised viewers that it might take some time to clarify the ruling, while correspondent Shannon Breem - who was outside the court - began speed-reading the decision out loud, frantically trying to figure out what the ruling said.
In an email obtained by journalistic observer Jim Romenesko, David T. Scott, the AP's Central U.S. Editor, instructed staff to immediately stop taunting on social networks about CNN and others' SCOTUS ruling mistake and the AP getting it right.
"That's not the impression we want to reflect as an organization. Let our reporting take the lead."
According to TheWrap, those covering the decision had been warned in advance that the ruling could be confusing and initial reports should be judicious.
Now, those who did not heed the warning are crippled with embarrassment and an apparent dip in employee morale. An anonymous CNN staff member told Buzzfeed the error was "f**cking humiliating," adding, "We had a chance to cover it right. And some people in here don't get what a big deal getting it wrong was. Morons."
The erroneous tweet still remains on the CNN Breaking News Twitter feed as of late afternoon ET -- with the outraged, incredulous replies still visible. "Who runs your twitter feed? Some unpaid intern who has an agenda?" tweeted one respondent. "@cnnbrk You guys really suck at journalism," wrote another. "I'm done with CNN. Lost all creditability [sic] in my book!"