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

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.

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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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