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Who Reported It First? Who Cares?

Can we talk about the nonsense of caring about which news outlet first reports a big piece of news? I’m not talking about a genuine scoop—a report that wouldn’t have otherwise come to light—but about news that we’re all eventually going to find out anyway. Who Mitt Romney selects to be his running-mate, for instance, or whether the Supreme Court upheld the individual mandate.

I know I’m often out-of-the-loop when it comes to journalism norms and conventions, but this one honestly confounds me. Has any publication ever received a Pulitzer for being the first to report a major announcement? Is there some secret reward at stake—free cookies for a year? A trip to Hawaii? Do colleagues buy you a drink to congratulate you on beating the other networks by ten seconds?

Because if this is just about bragging rights, it needs to stop. Now. And not just because it can lead to some outlets rushing to report incorrect information, as CNN and FOX did with the recent Supreme Court decision on health care reform. But because the race to be first is no longer just a feature of news coverage but often the main factor driving it.

That was one of depressing takeaways from Tommy Goldstein’s weekend post on how CNN and FOX got the Supreme Court’s healthcare decision wrong and so many other outlets got it right. Goldstein is best known as an expert on all things related to the Supreme Court (he’s also founder of SCOTUSblog and subject of a 2006 TNR profile by Noam Scheiber). But it turns out he’s also a pretty damn good media critic as well.

As Goldstein tells the story, the CNN producer at the Supreme Court when the decision was handed out quickly flipped through the opinion and told colleagues that the court had struck down the individual mandate after he got to the part that rejected the Administration’s Commerce Clause argument. But within seconds—after he scanned further down the page and saw the tax defense—he realized the error and tried to stop them from reporting his initial take, saying, “Wait, wait.”

But it is already too late. CNN has been carefully orchestrating its transformation into a shockingly efficient news distribution company. They have been planning to saturate every screen in reach with this story as fast as possible, and the producer’s initial go-ahead pulled the trigger. On the air, Wolf Blitzer is sending the coverage to the Courthouse steps. And as planned the reporter is putting her phone down to go on the air, which cuts herself off from the only CNN employee with access to the opinion.
No less important, the network’s web and social media teams are plugged directly into the call through CNN central. They immediately publish unequivocal tweets and a breaking news email saying that the mandate had been invalidated.

Even after CNN realized that its breaking report might have been wrong, the way Wolf Blitzer continued to cover the decision was nothing short of absurd. After using some cautionary language to let viewers know that the network needed to confirm the court’s decision, Wolf Blitzer observed, “It’s getting a little more complicated.” His remark, of course, referred to the network’s own coverage. The court’s decision couldn’t have gotten more complicated because it was final, set down on paper.

Blitzer’s unhelpful meta-commentary was just one example of the vamping that took place on tv and radio as reporters rushed to read the opinion and figure out what it meant. I was driving back from the airport that morning and listened as The Diane Rehm show broke off from another segment to cover the decision. The show’s producers had assembled a fantastic panel, including TNR’s Jeffrey Rosen, but for at least ten minutes, they engaged in a back-and-forth that frustrated listeners, panelists and host alike. Rehm kept pressing the panelists to analyze the decision and tell her what it said, but the panelists had not yet seen, much less digested, the majority opinion.

When I arrived home, I turned on the tv to find that even though the networks now knew that the mandate had been upheld, discussion of the court’s decision had been dictated by the vamping that took place in the first few minutes. Instead of talking about what the decision would actually mean in terms of the implementation of health-care reform, anchors asked their guests about the political implications—was this good or bad for Obama? What did it mean that Chief Justice Roberts had sided with the majority? Would this help Democrats take back the House in November?

Imagine if instead these programs had said, We’re going to take five—better yet, ten—and then come back to you having looked at the decision and feeling fairly confident what we can tell you about it. You’ll have to imagine that scenario, because it will never happen. In the meantime, I suppose I won’t be invited to that secret awards ceremony at which the breakers of news receive their trophies. It’s just as well. I can’t even remember who landed the scoop that Herman Cain was ending his campaign.