If the OJ Simpson car chase was a perfect moment for cable news, Thursday’s Supreme Court verdict, and the errors by CNN and Fox News, was the imperfect moment — an anti-Bronco chase.
There was little action as viewers watched anchors and commentators tap dance and kill time while someone off camera sat in a room waiting for a legal document. On-air talent were being fed incomplete, as it-happens information and passing that on to their audience.
It was a game of telephone — confusing, unsatisfying and, above all, boring.
No wonder there was impatience to get to the good stuff, the meat of the decision. When the ruling was delivered and the anticipated section (about the Commerce Clause) was read, the people at these two networks seemed unable to contain themselves anymore. They reacted before the Chief Justice had a chance to finish the section and get to the part everyone had actually been waiting for: The decision.
That’s one of the remarkable things about this utterly embarrassing episode. In the moment when it mattered most, CNN and Fox News forgot to wait for the critical piece of information — whether the Court had upheld or struck down the law.
And then, having shamed themselves on an international scale, both networks shot themselves in the foot by offering corrections that were in parts vague, strident, confusing and inadequate.
The discussion about Thursday’s errors by CNN and Fox News will inevitably give rise to talk of speed versus accuracy and getting it first versus getting it right. Fair enough. But I also view the errors as the result of two other collisions.
Collision of complexity and immediacy
First came a collision of complexity with instancy. The reasoning behind Chief Justice Roberts’ vote was surprising and it added a layer of complexity to the overall story. But the game planning at these media outlets seems to have been focused on that first bit of binary information: was the law, and the mandate, upheld or struck down?
Cable news thrives on immediacy; complexity is anathema, especially when it arrives in a moment of urgency.
The decision was more complex than CNN and Fox News were able to handle in that moment. And it only took one piece of information to trigger a cascade at CNN, whatever contingencies may have been part of its original coverage plans.
By focusing on the simple up down vote, they missed a notable piece of news, along with the decision itself.
Collision of methods
This was also a collision of an old institution (the Supreme Court) using old media and communication methods to deliver a message of immediate and massive importance. It was as much a clash of mediums and modes of communication as it was about speed and accuracy.
There was no live press conference, no cameras in the courtroom. Anyone wanting to know the news in that moment was going to have to sit in the courtroom and listen to a live reading of the document containing legal language and arguments and references that may seem like code to many of us.
A decision from the Supreme Court of the United States is not tailored for instant dissemination and the form of hyperactive analysis and scorekeeping prized by cable networks and wire services.
CNN and Fox News practiced reverse journalism: they took valid information, made it inaccurate and prevented people from understanding it, from experiencing it in the proper context.
In the end, when I think about what happened, after having read so much of the commentary and coverage about the errors and the inadequate corrections, there’s a single scene that keeps running through my head over and over again. But it’s not from CNN or Fox News:
In the above “Family Guy” clip, Peter and Lois are like CNN and Fox News, rushing to conclusions before a thought is finished.
Yesterday was a tragicomedy of breaking news. So it’s utterly perfect, then, that the error-inducing scenario had already been imagined by a team of comedy writers.