July 2012

A great victory

June 28 was a great day for America. What happened that morning represented a triumph of epic proportions – good over evil, the little guy over the powers of giant corporations.

No, we’re not talking about the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision regarding the Affordable Care Act. We’re talking about what happened afterward.

In the moments that followed the release of the high court’s ruling, there was a mad stampede of journalists competing to be first to put the story out. In the old days, they would have been elbowing each other out of the way at telephone booths. In the present, of course, their stampede was only to their laptops and smart phones, but it was every bit as frantic and frenzied.

Who would be swiftest to announce the momentous news? Reporters pored over the 59-page ruling, their brains practically smoking as they tried to process the information and digest it for dissemination to the public. Who would win the race? Who would have bragging rights and prestige until the next big piece of Breaking News?

As it turned out, Fox News and CNN were first to trumpet the news on-air, apparently after reading only the first page or two of Chief Justice John Roberts’ majority opinion.

“The Supreme Court justices have struck down the individual mandate,” cried CNN’s Kate Bolduan, while Fox’s Bill Hemmer proclaimed, “The individual mandate has been ruled unconstitutional.”

The only problem was, they were both dead wrong, a mistake later compared to the “Dewey defeats Truman” headline in the Chicago Tribune in 1948.

Or, as Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart chortled later, ”Like many of our most dramatic moments, it was a work of pure fiction.”

(For the record, NPR also got it wrong on its first Twitter feed, as did the Daily Caller. MSNBC held off, with Chris Jansing saying, “It may take us a while to parse this decision.” The venerable New York Times likewise took the time to get the facts correct.)

Meanwhile, those who really knew the score were turning to the reporting of an 81-year-old man on a littleknown resource called SCOTUSblog (for Supreme Court of the United States) – and three minutes after the ruling came down, he stated that the individual mandate contained in the health-care act had been [[upheld.]]

“#SCOTUS upholds #ACA individual mandate,” read the blog’s Twitter feed.

The reliability of former Supreme Court reporter Lyle Denniston, technology-averse and so old that many folks might expect him to be in a retirement home, is apparently no secret to Washington insiders. Fox News reportedly began to reverse its erroneous live statements after checking Denniston’s blog (“We are now getting conflicting reports,” Hemmer lamely walked it back), and President Obama – who had been viewing the incorrect statements on TV – was given a thumbs-up gesture by his White House counsel, who was following SCOTUSblog.

It was a triumph of experience over youth, brains over technology, and wisdom over recklessness.

So satisfying.

CNN corrected its report; Fox just said that it had “reported the facts as they came in” (true, except for the fact that its “facts” were wrong!).

While the high-paid anchors at two major cable networks were left with egg (sunny-side up, in the case of Fox) on their faces, forced to change their message to one of “widely different assessments” emerging and so on, those who held off in order to make sure they put out an accurate report – amazing idea! – emerged triumphant, like the slow-moving tortoise in the old fable. And foremost among the tortoises was the old guy who obviously is not quite ready for the nursing home. In fact, he has become something of a minor celebrity, to his apparent discomfort.

“I’m afraid I will be accused of false modesty if I say what I really feel, which is that in all of my years of journalism, I had never wanted to be part of the story,” he told CNN. “I grew up in journalism believing that the story was the story – and not the messenger.”

Score one for the old-fashioned, experienced journalist.

And just remember: The race is not to the swift. . .