Dewey Defeats Truman, LIVE! CNN Gets It Wrong on the Health-Care Ruling

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The network learns the hard way that being right is way, way better than being first.

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Talk about crying Wolf: As the Supreme Court's Affordable Care Act decision came down this morning, CNN was eager to report the ruling that the country has been anticipating for months. So eager, unfortunately, that the network didn't read the entire decision before reporting it, live, to that country.

The gun-jump seems to be a case of adrenaline run amok. According to CNN, the network's dedicated Supreme Court producer, Bill Mears, read the first section of the ruling, which declared that the individual mandate "is not a valid exercise of the Constitution's Commerce clause." (As CNN's Jeffrey Toobin later put it of Mears: "He basically adopted, in its entirety, the arguments of the challengers of the law.") 

Though of course the rest of the ruling would go on to clarify the majority's overall opinion -- which upholds the ACA as a tax -- CNN rolled with that first impression. On air and online.

On its website, it added a banner headline:

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And on its air, it announced, "it appears as if the justices have struck down the individual mandate -- the centerpiece of the healthcare legislation."

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This announcement was accompanied by an even less nuanced headline: SUPREME CT. KILLS INDIVIDUAL MANDATE. Here's the video, via Buzzfeed:

Oof. Still, you really have to feel for CNN: In a breaking news situation, the adrenaline pumps, and the sense of competition and come-on-guys-let's-be-first-ness can easily overcome the much more pressing need for thoroughness and, above all, accuracy. It's incredibly hard, I'm sure, to parse a relatively dense legal decision, under all the pressures of LIVE! TV, with an entirely clear head. You're looking for the headline, for the one phrase that will sum up the decision; your search for simplicity, however, can defeat its own purpose in a situation that's full of nuance.

So it's totally understandable that this would happen. Totally. But all the understandable-ness is what makes it, actually, even more regrettable -- because ultimately, the whole thing was painfully avoidable. The pressure to be sososuperquick in relaying the SCOTUS news came, actually, from CNN itself. (As The New York Times's Jim Roberts noted right before the ruling came down, "Instant analys is tempting. But you may see fewer #SCOTUS Tweets coming from us as we analyze the health care ruling.") You're covering the exact same story that everyone else is; it's breaking at the exact same time for everyone. The benefits of getting it first -- by, likely, mere seconds -- are slim. But the penalties for getting it wrong ... are huge.

CNN, it's worth noting, wasn't the only network to get it wrong. Fox News, for a moment, also reported premature news of the decision. But CNN was the first in the error, and bore the brunt of the embarrassment for it. And while the network has -- and to its credit -- quickly corrected its inaccurate information, the story people will remember about CNN's performance this morning wasn't that they got it first, but that they got it wrong. Massively wrong. "Dewey Defeats Truman" wrong.

Now, along with the Twitter-based discussion of the healthcare decision, there's a side conversation: the hashtag #CNNheadlines, which mocks the network with fake breaking news. 

Such as:

and:

and:

And the AP, Jim Romenesko reports, had to order its employees to stop making fun of Fox -- and, to a much greater extent, CNN.

Today is a big breaking-news day -- a day when people are tuning to news broadcasts, and turning to news broadcasts, for trustworthy information. It's a day when news organizations have a chance to win people's confidence and answer their questions. On such a day, you really don't want the questions they're asking to be like this:

Update, 12:10 pm: CNN has issued an official correction -- and apology:

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.

Update, 1:02 pm: Fox has issued its own version of a correction -- which contains an explanation of how it mis-reported the ruling, but is noticeably lacking in an apology:

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.

Update, 3:30 pm: Turns out that President Obama was watching CNN this morning, too.

Read The Atlantic's full coverage of the Supreme Court's health-care decision.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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