I missed this over the weekend, but I just read and love Tom Goldstein’s minute-by-minute account of how the media covered the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act. Goldstein is the publisher of SCOTUSblog, which offered sober, excellent coverage of the decision.
As Scope readers may remember, the morning the decision was announced, there was a great deal of initial confusion in the media about what, exactly, the court had actually decided. Goldstein writes that much of the confusion was caused by the court’s overconfidence in the capacity of its web servers:
The week before, the Court declined our request that it distribute this opinion to the press by email; it has complete faith in the exceptional effort it has made to ensure that the website will not fail.
But it does. At this moment, the website is the subject of perhaps greater demand than any other site on the Internet – ever. It is the one and only place where anyone in the country not at the building – including not just the public, but press editors and the White House – can get the ruling. And millions of people are now on the site anxiously looking for the decision. They multiply the burden of their individual visits many times over – hitting refresh again, and again, and again. In the face of the crushing demand, the Court cannot publish its own decision.
At the moment, then, the only people who could read the decision were reporters who had received a paper copy in the press room at the courthouse. That, coupled with the immense pressure to publish first, set in motion the chain of events that led to CNN and Fox News initially reporting the decision incorrectly:
Into his conference call, the CNN producer says (correctly) that the Court has held that the individual mandate cannot be sustained under the Commerce Clause, and (incorrectly) that it therefore “looks like” the mandate has been struck down. The control room asks whether they can “go with” it, and after a pause, he says yes.
The Fox producer reads the syllabus exactly the same way, and reports that the mandate has been invalidated. Asked to confirm that the mandate has been struck down, he responds: “100%.”
Those erroneous conclusions were then amplified on social media:
No less important, the network’s web and social media teams are plugged directly into the call through CNN central. They immediately publish unequivocal tweets and a breaking news email saying that the mandate had been invalidated.
Other news outlets reported differently, of course, and the situation that resulted was one where even the White House, according to Goldstein, was confused about the decision.
The piece is 7,000 words of utterly gripping reading, and I wholeheartedly recommend it. Goldstein claims at the end that he isn’t a journalist, but if this isn’t engaging long-form reporting, I’m not sure what is.
Previously: Analysis: The Supreme Court upholds the health reform act (really), Stanford experts respond to Supreme Court’s decision on health law and Supreme Court mostly upholds Affordable Care Act