Chaos, confusion mark cable TV reports on Supreme Court ruling

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Sometimes, breaking news requires a little fixing.

The antique traditions of the U.S. Supreme Court collided with the now-now-now news media on Thursday, resulting in chaos and chagrin as two U.S. cable television networks wrongly reported that the heart of President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law had been overturned by the nation’s highest court.

The erroneous initial reports came as journalists and amateur legal analysts everywhere rushed to extract a clear headline from 193 pages of complicated legal opinion from the Supreme Court.

“Wow, that’s a dramatic moment,” CNN’s Wolf Blitzer told television viewers shortly after 10:00 a.m. EDT (1400 GMT).

Beneath Blitzer’s picture, CNN flashed the source of the drama: “SUPREME CT. KILLS INDIVIDUAL MANDATE,” a reference to the law’s requirement that most Americans buy health insurance.

“The justices have gutted, Wolf, the centerpiece provision of the healthcare law,” announced CNN’s chief national correspondent John King.

Fox News Channel had a similar instant reaction.

“We have breaking news here on the Fox News Channel,” anchor Bill Hemmer said. “The individual mandate has been ruled unconstitutional.”

Fox flashed a banner on the screen: “Supreme Court finds healthcare individual mandate unconstitutional.”

Meanwhile, at 10:07 a.m., several news organizations reported that the law had been upheld.

After their initial reports, CNN and Fox News reversed course, correcting their first, hasty readings of the ruling - but not before a few Republican members of the House of Representatives, who are deeply opposed to the law, reacted to the false reports.

“Let Freedom Ring,” Republican Representative Dennis Ross of Florida wrote in a Twitter message. “Individual Mandate ruled unconstitutional.”

At least six House Republicans deleted celebratory messages on Twitter after hearing that the cable networks’ reports were wrong, according to the Sunlight Foundation, a group that promotes government transparency.

They weren’t the only ones fooled.

Outside the Oval Office, President Barack Obama was watching the same errant news reports when White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler, having read a report online, told him that the law actually had been upheld, senior administration officials said.


This is not the first time television networks have stumbled as they raced to be a few seconds ahead in reporting a court ruling.

In 2004, the CNBC and MSNBC cable channels initially botched the verdict in the Martha Stewart insider trading case, creating similar confusion on air.

Election coverage has famously caused misfires, too. During the 2000 presidential election, networks declared Democrat Al Gore the winner in Florida. The Supreme Court eventually resolved a vote recount dispute in Florida in favor of Republican George W. Bush, handing him the presidency.

CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said Chief Justice John Roberts’ explanation of the court’s ruling had contributed to the confusion.

“It was an extraordinary turn of events because five minutes into Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion, (if) you would have asked anyone in that room whether this law was going to be held unconstitutional, I think we all would have said yes,” Toobin told viewers.

“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,” the network said in a statement.

Fox blamed confusing reports for its initial coverage.

“Fox reported the facts as they came in,” Fox Executive Vice President Michael Clemente said in a statement.

Additional reporting by Jeff Mason.; Editing by David Lindsey and Christopher Wilson