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Friday, June 29, 2012

Why CNN and Fox Wrongly Reported the Supreme Court Health Care Ruling

The initially incorrect reporting by Fox and CNN of the US Supreme Court health care ruling yesterday will go down in history and long be cited in journalism courses along with Dewey beating Truman in 1948 according to the infamous Chicago Tribune banner headline and other examples of premature breaking news.  It was the most enjoyable part of the ruling other than the ruling itself.

But why did this happen?  The superficial answer, true enough, is that neither Fox nor CNN read far enough in Chief Justice Roberts' opinion to see he was upholding the mandate in the Affordable Health Care law as a tax, after rejecting its constitutionality under the commerce clause.

But there are deeper reasons.

CNN has fallen to a weak third place in the 24/7 all-news cable line-up.  It attracts not only the lowest number of viewers but likely staff and interns at all levels who would rather be someplace else.  Marshall McLuhan observed this sinking ship phenomenon in media when major newspapers began going on strike in the 1960s - they were going on strike, temporarily shutting down, McLuhan noted, as prelude to their permanent shut down, because fewer people were reading them, anyway.  Lack of audience and lack of production acumen feed one another in a vicious, downward, mutually destructive cycle. McLuhan not only saw the decline of newspapers in response to the screens of television, but accurately foresaw their decline in response to 21st century social media, which are now also challenging cable.

CNN is not about to shut down, but it is already in this cycle of decline, and needs to take special care not to feed it.

Fox, still in first place in cable news land, made the miscall for a very different reason.   Fox, despite its "fair and balanced" moniker, has long seen and reported the world through right-wing glasses.   Its top talent - Shep Smith, Bret Baier, and even Bill O'Reilly - can and do have independent views.  But its staff at all levels wears ideological blinders.  Fox not only misread the Supreme Court decision by stopping too soon in its reading, but likely did that because that's what the Fox people who did the reading wanted it to say.   They read as much as they needed to confirm their hopes.  Seeing support for one's views can be a powerful source of distortion when encountering new material.

I suppose the same could be said for MSNBC, which didn't want to see the ruling strike down Obamacare and reported the ruling correctly.   On the other hand, Pete Williams, who brought the opinion to MSNBC air, is one of the sharpest legal reporters in the business.  Given the decline of CNN and the ideology of Fox, it is unlikely he'd be anywhere other than reporting for MSNBC.

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