It hurts to be wrong…especially if you’re caught and it’s about one of the biggest political stories of the year. But it turns out two of our biggest new networks did get it wrong and they’ve now been picked to be ‘honored’ for such.
CNN and Fox News share the distinction of “Error of the Year” for their simultaneous and mutual mischaracterizations of the Supreme Court’s Affordable Care Act decision on June 28, 2012, on the individual mandate, both reporting that it had been struck down when it had not. The dubious ‘honor’ bestowed upon them for this catastrophic blunder was made by Poynter’s.org, the website of the Poynter Institute of Journalism, which each year announces their choices for the most egregious media blunders of the year: “The best (and worst) media errors and corrections of 2012.”
The misinformation on the mandate decision was made as both networks jumped on initial reporting coming out of the Court and, without enough facts or follow-up, somehow mangled what they heard into the exact opposite of what was fact. From Poynter:
CNN said it on air, online, by email newsletter, on Twitter. This mistake was platform agnostic, which is one reason why it deserves error of the year status. It’s an example of how an error on a big breaking story can flow quickly, and move seemingly out of control, in a matter of seconds. The SCOTUS error takes the honor, too, because of the high-profile nature of the story, and therefore of the mistakes.
But Poynter went on to explain that Fox was tapped for the “dis-‘honor not only for their misstatements, but also for the disingenuous way in which they adjusted after it became clear what they’d reported was wrong. Unlike CNN, which essentially, and with great chagrin, apologized:
In his opinion, Chief Justice Roberts initially said that the individual mandate was not a valid exercise of Congressional power under the Commerce Clause. CNN reported that fact, but then wrongly reported that therefore the court struck down the mandate as unconstitutional. However, that was not the whole of the Court’s ruling. CNN regrets that it didn’t wait to report out the full and complete opinion regarding the mandate. We made a correction within a few minutes and apologize for the error.
Fox took a different approach, deciding to go with an arrogant dismissal of their own erroneous reporting as “what we knew at the time,” mixed with a dig or two at CNN’s mistake of the same. Fox’s statement (reported by Poynter):
“We gave our viewers the news as it happened. When Justice 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.”
Jeff Sonderman at Poynter made the point that Fox’s attempt at face-saving actually worked against them on the integrity front and worked to solidify their inclusion in the “Error of the Year” category:
“Fox’s statement says it ‘reported the facts’ when in fact Fox, like CNN, misinterpreted the facts. CNN owned its error when it said it leapt from reporting Roberts’ words to ‘therefore the court struck down the mandate as unconstitutional.’ Fox is saying its interpretation was a fact. Not quite.”
The awards given by Poynter each year are a topic of great anticipation and interest. Their site, www.Poynter.org, is an off-shoot the Poynter Institute, the non-profit school for journalism founded by Nelson Poynter (owner and chairman of the St. Petersburg Times, now the Tampa Bay Times). The school embraces the motto “Democracy needs journalism. Journalism needs Poynter.” [source: Wikipedia] Equally as noble, the tagline at their website is:
“Helps journalists do their jobs better and to serve their communities.”
Given their clear goal to set a higher bar regarding journalistic truth and integrity, Poynter’s award for “Error of the Year” can’t help but come with a certain “gravitas of shame,” now, no doubt, being felt by both CNN and Fox.