When CNN incorrectly reported the fate of the individual mandate they fell into a long tradition of being first but not being right. Journalists have always wanted to report something first, but the benefits of doing so aren't clear -- especially for news consumers. Bob reports on the phenomenon and folly of being first.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, more than a week has passed since Fox News Channel and CNN broke the story of the year, the Supreme Court’s historic decision on ObamaCare.
FOX ANCHOR BILL HEMMER: We have breaking news here on the Fox News Channel. The individual mandate has been ruled unconstitutional.
CNN CORRESPONDENT KATE BOLDUAN: So it appears as if the Supreme Court justices have struck down the individual mandate.
BOB GARFIELD: Oops. Within two minutes more deliberate outlets were saying ObamaCare was, in fact, upheld. But here at OTM we refuse to rush to judgment. We check and double check. And also, we aired a rerun last week, so we had plenty of time to review the Supreme Court-misreporting episode every which way. And we are finally prepared to weigh in.
Fox and CNN, what a bunch of nincompoops. By failing to read much past the first page of Chief Justice John Roberts’ 59-page decision before rushing onto the air, both cable channels managed to get the story not just wrong but 180 degrees wrong. They called heads, it was tails. But then, what else is new? Lately, the rush to be first has led to all sorts of embarrassing screwups. At CNN:
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: CNN has now confirmed that at least, at least 20 bodies have been found in a home…
BOB GARFIELD: At CNN again:
CNN ANCHOR WOLF BLITZER: The state-run Middle East News Agency in Cairo is now reporting that Hosni Mubarak, the former President of Egypt, in the words of MENA, the Middle East News Agency, is quote, “clinically dead.”
BOB GARFIELD: And, huh [SIGHS] at NPR which, amid the chaos of an Arizona shooting spree, reported the death of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
NPR SPOKESWOMAN (JANUARY, 2011): NPR News apologizes to the family of Representative Giffords and to you, our listeners. We deeply regret our error.
BOB GARFIELD: The fullness of time allows me to update the record. Gabby Giffords survived. There was no massacre. Mubarak isn’t dead. The topics of these misreported stories were literally matters of life and death, but for the news organizations what exactly are the stakes for beating the competition, not for scooping the competition with a big exclusive resulting from journalistic enterprise but just being the first to break breaking news? Going back to the hoariest days of wire service competition, that’s been called a beat.
JERRY SCHWARTZ: So much depended on us being both first and right with stories.
BOB GARFIELD: Jerry Schwartz is news features editor for the AP, where he has worked for decades. He has vivid memories of the old teletype machines, which would clatter and ring with alerts of an AP beat over rival UPI, on a dead pope, a baby pulled from a well or a presidential victory.
JERRY SCHWARTZ: I remember them and I remember the scars when the messages didn’t come and because the UPI beat us. And that happened. We don’t admit it very often but it did happen. It was the heartbeat of our lives.
BOB GARFIELD: Schwartz began his career in the late seventies, which was not the 1930s but technologically not far removed. Nor had the culture and the hardware much changed, even in 1987, when he was dispatched to cover the verdict in the case against Bernhard Goetz, New York’s so-called “subway vigilante.”
JERRY SCHWARTZ: When you went on a big story, the first thing you did was check out where the pay phone was. And if you were especially devious, you would not only find where the pay phone was. Some of my colleagues - I was not among them – disabled the phones in such a way –
-so that you were the only one who could use it. [BOB LAUGHS]
And in doing –
BOB GARFIELD: Sounds like something out of The Front Page.
JERRY SCHWARTZ: Oh well, yeah. But, you know, that’s exactly what it was. You would run to the phone and you’d dictate the news.
BOB GARFIELD: “Sweetheart, get me Rewrite.”
JERRY SCHWARTZ: Exactly. But, the Bernhard Goetz case came at that weird moment when cellphones were coming into vogue. And we had what I believe was one of the AP's first cellphones, and-
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] It must have been the size of a loaf of bread.
JERRY SCHWARTZ: It was – no, it was the size of a small suitcase. [BOB LAUGHS] It was this huge thing that we lugged around. We were not allowed to bring it into the courtroom. And then the verdict came down and we raced out and prayed desperately that we’d be able to make a connection with it. And, in fact, we did. And it was the first time I, in my entire life, had used the cellphone.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, he beat UPI. And what did news consumers get out of that? Not one blessed thing. Newspaper readers got their papers when they got them, not when the AP moved the story, and broadcast audiences heard the news on whatever station they happened to be tuned into, which means they were oblivious to any time lag on a UPI-served station they weren’t tuned into. Firstness was then, and remains today, a journalistic compulsion of vanishingly little consequence.
Schwartz believes there is a cumulative benefit to beating the competition, but neither he nor anyone else can prove that. What he knows for certain is the competitiveness in his bones.
JERRY SCHWARTZ: For people who are in news, that is one of the reasons they’re in news, because they like that battle, that race to get the news out.
PAUL FARHI: Don’t discount journalist pride.
BOB GARFIELD: Paul Farhi covered the Supreme Court misreporting fiasco for The Washington Post.
PAUL FARHI: Telling people something they didn’t know before the other guy tells them the same thing is a point of how we operate.
BOB GARFIELD: Farhi too insists that the public somehow absorbs the competitive push and pull among news organizations, but concedes the difference between a clearcut scoop and a fractional breaking newsbeat, such as the one CNN and Fox sought last week before making utter fools of themselves.
PAUL FARHI: Everybody had the news about the Supreme Court. No one was getting an advance on that. It was just a typing contest, who could type it out fast enough.
BOB GARFIELD: Yet, Jerry Schwartz predicts not a lesser emphasis on newsbeats but in a Twitter world, a greater one, measured not in hours or minutes.
JERRY SCHWARTZ: If it’s down to seconds now, it’ll be down to milliseconds eventually.
BOB GARFIELD: And why? Because in a digital world, page views rule and theoretically speed provides an edge on page views, ergo, the first even with the worst, even with “Dewey Beats Truman” wins the traffic and with it pots full of money, which would mean the digital world has finally monetized and justified journalism’s least justifiable impulse.
But wait, just to be on the safe side, we ran that theory by Clark Fredricksen of the digital research firm eMarketer. We asked him if, having analyzed the data, crunched the numbers, evaluated user behavior and the fortunes of a thousand digital enterprises, he can find any correlation between being first and being successful.