It probably comes as small solace to CNN and Fox News, but they are far from being the first major news organizations to endure epic failure in reporting a bulletin coming out of the courts.
In fact, there have been worse.
That may be hard to imagine. On June 28, 2012, both of these cable channels—faced with an enormously complicated decision and competitive pressures on one of the biggest and most anticipated stories of the year—reported erroneously that the mandate at the heart of President Barack Obama's health care reform had been declared unconstitutional. And then they watched as other organizations reported, accurately, that "Obamacare" actually had been upheld.
Chief Justice John Roberts' majority decision first found that the mandate was not valid under the Constitution's "commerce clause," but it went on to say that Congress could impose the mandate using its taxing authority. CNN and Fox News reporters read the first part, but in their haste, failed to read the second.
"CNN regrets that it didn't wait to report out the full and complete opinion regarding the mandate," that network said in a statement. "We made a correction within a few minutes and apologize for the error."
Of course, by the time the correction was made, the damage had been done.
Lane Filler, a member of the editorial board of the Long Island, New York, newspaper Newsday, blogged that “`Dewey Beats Truman’ is no longer the biggest major screw-up in American media history." And the Internet was soon flooded with a Photoshopped version of the 1948 photo of Harry Truman brandishing the inaccurate front page of the Chicago Tribune; now, a grinning Obama held up an iPad with the CNN headline on the health care ruling.
"Sure, other networks are also wrong," a narrator said as the late-night television show Jimmy Kimmel Live! offered a highlight reel of fake CNN "scoops," "But only CNN is wrong first."
The joke turned to serious fodder for media critics who wondered why there was a rush to report in the first place.
"Can we talk about the nonsense of caring about which news outlet first reports a big piece of news?" asked Amy Sullivan, writing for The New Republic. "I'm not talking about a genuine scoop—a report that wouldn’t otherwise come to light—but about news that we’re all eventually going to find out anyway."
She went on to say that "if this is just about bragging rights, it needs to stop...because the race to be first is no longer just a feature of news coverage but often the main factor driving it."
In fact, this is far from a new phenomenon. The antics of The Front Page and other newspaper movies of the 1930s and '40s were fiction, but fiction based on fact. News organizations used cut-throat tactics to beat their competitors to stories, even by a few minutes. This was not competition merely for the sake of competition or for fun; there were always deadlines, and a paper that reached the street with the latest headlines could have an enormous commercial advantage.
The wire services, serving many newspapers with many deadlines, were a crucible of competitive pressure. And that explains the disaster that befell The Associated Press on Feb. 13, 1935.
In the pantheon of great trials of the 20th century, the case against Bruno Hauptmann in the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh's infant son is unsurpassed. Yes, the "Scopes Monkey Trial" of 1925 was a virtual circus, featuring Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan; yes, the 1994-95 O. J. Simpson trial had a celebrity, a racial angle and a suspenseful narrative magnified by cable news and its 24-hour cycle. But the Lindbergh case involved a horrific crime against the family of perhaps the most famous man in the world at the time, played out in the newly massive mass media of newspapers and radio.
As related by Oliver Gramling in his 1940 book AP—The Story of News, Henry E. Mooberry, the bureau chief in charge of the AP's trial coverage at the Flemington, N.J., courthouse, was worried. Mooberry feared that his reporters would be locked in the courtroom for a long time after the verdict was delivered, until the judge discharged the jury. So he set out to find a way to get that verdict out immediately.
A reporter was issued a portable shortwave radio transmitter that he would smuggle into the courtroom under his coat. A shortwave receiver was installed in the attic of the building, along with a teletype machine, and another reporter was stationed there. When the verdict came down, the reporter in the courtroom would transmit numerals in Morse code (dots and dashes, usually noted as "dits" and "dahs"): 1 for a death verdict; 4, guilty and life imprisonment; 7, acquittal; 9, a hung jury.
At 10:31 p.m., the attic operator sent out the flash over the teletype machine: "FLEMINGTON -- VERDICT REACHED GUILTY AND LIFE." The AP was first and alone with the story.
But soon the courtroom doors opened, allowing news transmissions from the reporters who had been inside. The verdict was guilty—but the sentence was death.
Somehow, there had been a mistake, though the cause remains a mystery. Although a "1" would have been dit-dah-dah-dah-dah, the reporter in the attic swore he heard the code for 4 (dit-dit-dit-dit-dah), though later he said it might have been the code for V (dit-dit-dit-dah). Regardless, no one ever determined the origin of the signal that led to the erroneous teletyped report.
"The erroneous flash was a sensation not only in the pressrooms in Flemington but in newspaper offices around the country," Gramling writes. "The same editions which blazoned the Hauptmann death verdict also gave prominence to accounts of the flash which caused so much confusion."
Implicit in Gramling's account: The incorrect story managed to find its way onto some front pages in just 11 minutes, the duration of the AP's scoop (i.e., the time that elapsed between the reception in the attic and when the reporters could leave the courtroom).
Much has changed in the ensuing 77 years. There are fewer newspapers and they publish fewer editions, and "extras" are reserved for rare events like the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. Few people rely on newspapers anymore for the very latest news—there are other places to go for that, and journalists know that.
On the other hand, people behind cable news have inherited the mindset of The Front Page, apparently believing that viewers either consciously or unconsciously will gravitate to the channel that is generally first with the news, even if only by seconds or a few minutes.
There are other arguments for speed, some better than others. When news has financial implications, investors want every edge they can get, and depend on services like Bloomberg to get them what they need when they need it. Public safety can be enhanced by the electronic media’s innate speed of distribution in times of danger.
But then there is the Web, where news is a constant stream. Surely, milliseconds matter. Don't they? Clark Fredericksen, of the digital research company eMarketer, interviewed on WNYC's On The Media, was asked if there was any evidence that sites that offer the news first are more popular than those that are slower.
"The short answer is no," he said.
What's left is an almost primordial instinct for speed. Like the scorpion who pleaded with a turtle to help him cross a river—and then stung his benefactor midway across, sending both to their deaths—a journalist who is asked why he or she is fixated self-destructively on getting it first can only respond, "It's in my nature."
The Supreme Court knows this about the media; it could easily ensure that more deliberate accounts of its actions would be published and transmitted. Just follow the lead of the Federal Reserve and some other agencies and lock reporters in a secure room with the text of their decisions for an hour before the rulings are officially handed down, so all have an opportunity to study them carefully before filing their reports. With that kind of head start, CNN and Fox News would have avoided misinforming the American public.
But don’t expect the judges to change.
It’s in their nature.