The Race to Be First to Be Wrong at the Supreme Court

In corporate media there is always a race to be first to report a breaking story seconds before your competitors. It means nothing to the rest of the world–we’re talking a matter of seconds, much of the time–but it’s a point of pride in the news business to be first.

Being right is more important, by several miles, and on that score a few prominent outlets failed spectacularly yesterday at the Supreme Court, telling viewers that the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act had been struck down.

The prime offenders on cable were Fox News (photo by @jasonkeath)  and CNN. Within several minutes, the outlets realized their mistakes and shifted their coverage accordingly.

But while it’s important to note these missteps, it’s equally important to remember that this kind of thing happens more than it should–and sometimes with far greater consequences. The 2000 election night “call” for George W. Bush was a prime example of media racing to be first. The decision to declare Bush the winner based on projections of a razor-thin victory in Florida were not only misleading, they set the terms for the public discussion that followed–he won, and now people are trying to steal his victory.

It’s mostly forgotten, but CBS anchor Dan Rather was responsible for several terrible mistakes during live coverage of the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Rather told CBS viewers that a car bomb had exploded outside the State Department, and that two people had been arrested with explosives at New York’s George Washington Bridge.

Shortly after the United States invaded Iraq, NBC Nightly News had a “scoop” confirming the existence of Iraqi mobile bio-weapons labs (5/12/03). The segment featured a tour of the trailer courtesy of former weapons inspector David Kay. The facility had nothing to do with weapons at all. Weeks earlier (4/26/03), ABC World News had a similar exclusive: “U.S. troops discover chemical agents, missiles, and what could be a mobile laboratory in Iraq. An ABC News exclusive.”

Journalistic outlets, at bare minimum, owe the public an apology and some accountability for their mistakes. But that’s not always what we get. CNN has expressed regret over yesterday’s mistakes. But Fox? Not so much, as reported in the Washington Post:

Fox, meanwhile, said it had no regrets. “Our job is to share the news as we learn it,” said Michael Clemente, executive vice president of news-editorial at Fox. “As we were hearing it, and as we were reading it, we let our viewers know about it.” He added, “You don’t have to wait until the conclusion of the Yankees game to give the score.”

New slogan: We Report, You Decide (if What We Report Is Accurate).

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.