Another Stumble for Reeling CNN  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   June/July 2012

Another Stumble for Reeling CNN   

Its ratings sinking, the cable news pioneer makes a high-profile mistake on the Supreme Court’s health care ruling. Thurs., June 28, 2012.

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


Poor CNN. It just can't buy a hoop.

On a huge story, the ratings-challenged cable news pioneer tossed up an airball.

"Mandate struck down," cnn.com reported this morning. "High court finds measure unconstitutional."

"SUPREME CT. KILLS INIDVIDUAL MANDATE" was the crawl on TV.

"Supreme Court strikes down individual mandate portion of health care law," CNN tweeted.

Trouble was, the U.S. Supreme Court had just upheld President Barack Obama's landmark health care reform law.

Of course, CNN wasn't alone. Fox News Channel, the dominant force in cable news, also got it wrong. So, too, Politico reported, did a handful of tweet-happy congressmen.

It's easy to see why this happened. It was an enormously complicated story. Reporters were confronted with the daunting challenge of parsing four opinions totaling 187 pages in minutes.

And, in a sense, the court did strike down the mandate, which is how CNN got into trouble. Chief Justice John Roberts said in his ruling that the individual mandate to buy health care insurance didn't hold up under the Commerce Clause, as the Obama administration had argued. However, he went on to say that the legislation passed muster because the penalty for not buying health care insurance could be considered a tax, well within Congress' powers.

The tension between getting it first, or at least very, very fast, and getting it right has been around as long as journalism has. And it's on steroids in today's highly competitive media climate.

But it's always a good idea to know what you're talking about before you publish it, air it or tweet it. For example, at one point this morning, nytimes.com posted that its reporters and editors were poring over the opinions and would let the world know what they said as soon as they could figure it out. There's a concept.


AJR screenshot of CNN's original online report.

CNN said it best in its correction/apology for getting the story so wrong: "CNN regrets that it didn't wait to report out the full and complete opinion regarding the mandate." Reporting fully and completely is never a bad idea.

The timing couldn't be worse for CNN, whose ratings have been in freefall. In the second quarter of this year, the third-place cable news network suffered its lowest ratings since 1991. CNN invented the 24-hour news channel in 1980, and for years had the game to itself. Its métier was news, straight down the middle news. But the world has changed dramatically in the intervening years.

Now it has two aggressive competitors in Fox and MSNBC. Fox established itself with a rightward tilt, MSNBC dragged itself out of its career-long doldrums by moving sharply left. And in today's hyperpolarized society, those partisan approaches have paid big dividends.

CNN has remained in the middle, which is admirable. But it seems tired. Its primetime lineup is particularly lackluster. And in the midst of a heated, high-interest presidential campaign, it has hardly established itself as the go-to place for political coverage. It seems desperately in need of a dynamic revival.

Its "Dewey Defeats Truman" moment on the health care ruling sure didn't help.

###