CNN and Fox News initially reported the high court had struck down the mandate to buy health insurance.
WASHINGTON — The shortcomings of instantaneous technology became evident Thursday as CNN and Fox News incorrectly reported the historic Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act.
The cable-news networks, going on early parts of Chief Justice John Roberts’ opinion, initially reported the court had struck down the mandate to buy health insurance.
ABC also initially bobbled one detail — calling the ruling 6-3 instead of 5-4 — but correctly reported the outcome in a special report by Terry Moran.
The news from CNN and Fox News went viral within seconds. Republican and tea-party protesters on the steps of the court erupted, cheering and waving American and “Join, or Die” flags.
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“They’ve announced that there are limits on the federal government,” a Republican protest leader told the cheering crowd.
Republican members of Congress flaunted their social-media skills and spread the misinformation by tweeting about their excitement.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., called the ruling a “big win for liberty and the Constitution. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., said it was “great news for the American people, victory for constitution.” Rep. Dennis Ross, another Florida Republican, tweeted: “Individual Mandate ruled unconstitutional. Let Freedom Ring.”
The congressmen’s tweets were deleted later, although copies were preserved by the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington, D.C., group that advocates for government transparency.
Asked about the errant tweet, Michael Mahaffey, a spokesman for Rooney said: “It’s better to send out a mistaken tweet on a Supreme Court decision you haven’t had a chance to read than it is to vote for a trillion-dollar health-care takeover bill that you haven’t had a chance to read.”
Within minutes, however, confusion took over in the world of social media and at the court as other networks said the mandate had been upheld.
It was a particularly embarrassing muff for CNN, which has suffered through one of its worst ratings quarters in several years, primarily due to a paucity of big news. The network eagerly awaited the Supreme Court’s decision Thursday, running a “countdown clock” on its screen during the morning ticking down to 7 a.m. PDT.
The network also sent an email reporting that the mandate had been struck down and posted the news on Twitter.
Washington, D.C., resident David Heyman had been following SCOTUSblog, which reported the decision correctly, when he received a conflicting CNN breaking-news alert on his iPad. “I didn’t know which to believe,” said Heyman, director of marketing at Bloomberg BNA, a political and regulatory news organization. “CNN just grossly jumped the gun.”
The desire to get it first instead of getting it right is one of the main reasons the mistake happened, according to Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University.
“Journalists in this situation are prime candidates for major screw-ups,” said Bugeja, who has authored four books on digital technology. “A mistake about a Supreme Court decision — a historic, landmark decision — is entirely possible if a reporter is on an intense deadline and uses instantaneous global microblogging techniques that disseminate an error in multiples.”
People who did not want to be confused by what always promised to be a complicated opinion turned in huge numbers to SCOTUSblog, a popular site known for accurate, prompt Supreme Court reporting.
Minutes before the Supreme Court released its opinion, SCOTUSblog publisher Tom Goldstein announced on the site’s live blog that more than 1,000 people per second were signing onto the blog. At one point, there were 866,000 readers.
When the opinion came down, those readers were not confused at all.
At 7:07 a.m. PDT, SCOTUSblog reporter Amy Howe typed: “We have health care opinion.”
Exactly one minute later, she wrote, “The individual mandate survives as a tax.”
Information from the Los Angeles Times and The Associated Press is included in this report.