Who Was First? Who Cares?  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June/July 2012

Who Was First? Who Cares?   

The ridiculous battle over who “broke” the news on the health care ruling―and why it’s dangerous. Thurs., June 28, 2012.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


Q: Which news organization was first to report on the U.S. Supreme Court's health care ruling?

A: Who cares?

This morning, a Bloomberg News public relations staffer sent along this helpful tip to media news blogger/aggregator Jim Romenesko:

"Just wanted to reach out about your post about the coverage of today's Supreme Court health care ruling. You reference an email that notes that the AP first reported the decision – by our records, Bloomberg moved the story first at 10:07:31; the AP moved the story at 10:07:55. I've attached screen shots of both headlines with timestamps for your reference."

So Bloomberg was crowing that it beat the Associated Press by 24 seconds? 24 seconds? Really?

Give me a break.

(Off topic: And the flack also felt compelled to use the incredibly annoying and ubiquitous phrase "reach out." Nobody ever "seeks comment" anymore. They "reach out." Make it stop. Like "it is what it is," this one really stretches the limits of the First Amendment.)

The Bloomberg person was responding to an earlier Romenesko post in which an unnamed AP staffer was bragging in an e-mail about the AP's speed and accuracy on the decision, saying the wire service had been first, and thoroughly enjoying CNN's epic screw-up in its first report. Such football-spiking by AP staffers led an AP official to tell the staff to cease and desist, to act as if they had been in the end zone before.

The "who will get it first" madness started yesterday when Lyle Denniston, a reporter for the Supreme Court-blanketing SCOTUSblog, was quoted in the Washington Post as saying, "our number one ambition is to beat everyone on the ruling."

Now there's no doubt the scoop is a time-honored tradition in journalism. Breaking a big story is a big deal. And that competition to unearth powerful and important stories can be a very positive force.

But worrying about being first on reporting something that is handed to you and everyone else? By 24 seconds? To borrow the Gail Collinsism, I think I speak for everyone when I say, it's really not important.

Worse than that, it's dangerous. The health care decision is a complicated piece of business. It's worth taking the time required to fully understand it before reporting on it. It's that rush to be first or almost first that leads to world-class mistakes like CNN and Fox News made this morning, when they reported the health care law had been overturned.

Finally, you've heard of nondenial denials? Well, how about this noncorrection correction? While CNN forthrightly admitted that it had blown it in its initial report on the decision, Fox released this gem from deep in its defensive crouch:

"We gave our viewers the news as it happened. When Justice [John] 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.

"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."

This, even though the network had reported flatly, "The individual mandate has been ruled unconstitutional."

Nice.

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