Fox, CNN blow it in initial calls on Supreme Court healthcare ruling

<i>This post has been updated, as indicated below.</i>

The Supreme Court’s opinion had always promised to be confusing and complex. Unfortunately, seasoned journalists let their anxiety/enthusiasm/thirst-to-be-first overwhelm their better judgment Thursday morning.

Many who should have waited for clarity rushed to report that the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the individual mandate portion of President Obama’s healthcare reform law, declaring that the heart of the bill had been gutted.

That was exactly wrong -- the law was upheld on a 5-4 vote.

While The Associated Press and many other outlets got it right, CNN and Fox News, two major TV news sources, blew it moments after the justices released their decision.


“Please, immediately, stop taunting on social networks about CNN and others’ SCOTUS ruling mistake and the AP getting it right,” wrote AP Central U.S. Region Editor David Scott in a memo to his staff. “That’s not the impression we want to reflect as an organization. Let our reporting take the lead.”

At 7:09 a.m. PDT, CNN sent out a breaking news alert: “The Supreme Court has struck down the individual mandate for health care – the legislation that requires all to have health insurance.”

TV screens tuned to CNN also saw an on-screen message that the individual mandate had been struck down. As Wolf Blitzer and John King discussed the mandate as the centerpiece of the president’s plan, and how it was the mechanism for payment, other outlets, and Twitter, where many also got it wrong initially, began contradicting them. (For a couple of minutes there, the Twittersphere was an incoherent mess, with so many conflicting tweets it was impossible to know exactly what happened.) Nine minutes after CNN’s first news alert, at 7:18 am PDT, the network sent out a retraction: “Correction: The Supreme Court backs all parts of President Obama’s signature health care law, including the individual mandate that requires all to have health insurance.”

In the studio, Blitzer announced he’d gotten conflicting reports, then announced the correct result.

Half an hour after their initial, incorrect report, Blitzer explained to viewers that the confusion seemed to have stemmed from the court’s unexpected rationale for upholding the individual mandate as a constitutional tax penalty imposed by Congress on those who can afford health insurance but refuse to purchase it.

Reading from the court’s opinion, Blitzer quoted Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who wrote that the Affordable Care Act “is constitutional in part and unconstitutional in part. The individual mandate cannot be upheld as an exercise of Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause. That clause authorizes Congress to regulate commerce not to order individuals to engage in it in this case, however, it is reasonable to construe what Congress has done as increasing taxes on those who have a certain amount of income but choose to go without health insurance, such legislation is within Congress’s power to tax.”


CNN later released a statement explaining its mistake.

“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,” CNN said in its correction.

Fox News also was similarly tripped up.

Shortly after the decision came down, the Fox News chyron (the “headline” at the bottom of the screen) read “Supreme Court Finds Individual Mandate Unconstitutional.” Host Bill Hemmer, who appeared to be getting conflicting information, told viewers it could take several minutes to understand the court’s ruling.

Fox then changed its message to “Supreme Court upholds parts and invalidates parts of health care law” as the camera cut to correspondent Shannon Bream outside the court. Bream began speed-reading the decision out loud, frantically trying to figure out what the ruling said. Hemmer asked how many pages there were, and when she told him more than 100, he told her to keep reading and get back to them.

Fox released a statement of its own, with a particularly pointed reference to CNN.

“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,” Fox said in a release obtained by Mediaite.

“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.”

During Fox’s broadcast though, anchor Bill Hemmer clearly declared: “The individual mandate has been ruled unconstitutional.”


Meanwhile, in the studio, Judge Andrew Napolitano, reading from his laptop, quoted the lead from SCOTUSblog, saying the mandate had been upheld.

Indeed, people who did not want to be confused by what had always promised to be a complicated opinion turned in huge numbers to SCOTUSblog, a popular site known for its accurate, fast 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. There were, at one point, 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.”

[For the Record, 11:38 a.m. PST June 28: This post has been updated to reflect CNN and Fox News’ respective statements explaining their coverage.]

Maeve Reston and Matea Gold contributed to this report.