It is debatable which politicians "won" as a result of today's Supreme Court health care decision, but there were clear losers in the media race to report the outcome of the Supreme Court case.
When the court ruling was made public Thursday morning, CNN and Fox News erroneously reported that the "individual mandate" portion of the Affordable Care Act had been deemed unconstitutional and struck down. In fact, the court upheld the individual mandate: it concluded that while the mandate does not pass muster under the commerce clause of the Constitution, it is allowable because it operates as a tax, which Congress has the power to impose.
The networks' on-air mistakes were only magnified by simultaneous reports online, on Twitter and in e-mails from CNN — and by retweets and mentions from individuals and other news organizations, including Huffington Post and Time magazine.
On Fox News, an on-screen graphic read "Supreme Court Finds Health Care Individual Mandate Unconstitutional" even as anchor Megyn Kelly said the story might need to be corrected.
Reporting on Supreme Court decisions is, obviously, difficult: decisions run to hundreds of pages of legal reasoning not written for people without law degrees. That's not a good mix with the get-it-first mandate of live television.
In this case, reporters could get copies of the decision as soon as the justices began reading their opinions, and phone information to on-camera colleagues waiting outside the court.
"It's easier to make the mistakes, and the mistakes are made in more places, and the evidence that you made the mistake is available," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a media research organization. "One of the few laws of journalism is that speed is the enemy of accuracy."
While television and the Web may seem ephemeral, evidence of mistakes doesn't really go away. Websites immediately began posting screen shots of incorrect graphics from television. Even tweets based on the incorrect information and then recalled, showed up on the Sunlight Foundation's "Politwoops" site, which features deleted tweets from politicians, such as Republican Rep. Dennis Ross' comment: "Individual Mandate ruled unconstitutional. Let Freedom Ring.''
Even Pete Williams, the NBC reporter who won kudos on Twitter for correctly interpreting the opinion, needed help from the reporters on the website SCOTUSblog to determine whether the mandate had been struck down since it was found to be invalid under the commerce clause.
"So on whether the mandate is constitutional under the commerce clause, which was for the states the big issue, what's the vote breakdown on that?" he asked Tom Goldstein, a reporter for the blog, which saw a huge increase in traffic for its (accurate) live-blogging of the decision. "There were five justices who said that it did violate the commerce clause, the five more conservative justices of the Supreme Court. But that has no practical effect at all,'' Goldstein told him on MSNBC.