Unlike last year, the media gets the end of the term right

June 28th, 2013

The end of the October 2011 term was an absolute debacle, as far as the media is concerned. In the haste to the the first to broadcast the outcome of the healthcare decision, two networks, CNN and Fox News, erroneously reported that the Court struck the mandate down. Turns out they didn’t read the entire holding before going live. The CNN reporter on camera is shown reading from pages 1-3 of the syllabus. Had she gone to the fourth page, she would have seen Roberts’s saving construction. (I discuss the minute-by-minute drama of the last day of the term in my book).

This year, the media got it right.

On Wednesday morning, the television networks that reported the rulings first got them right. NBC and ABC reported within seconds of each other at 10:02 a.m. that the court had overturned the Defense of Marriage Act. CBS and other television news organizations soon followed. All the major wire services also reported the news within about a minute of one another.

Here are the finish times of the wires:

The conventional wisdom on speed, alas, hasn’t prevented news organizations from going fast. Following the release of this morning’s Supreme Court ruling in the DOMA case, here are the finish times of some key organizations:

Bloomberg: 10:01:13
Reuters: 10:01:32
AP: 10:02:27

Bloomberg reporter Greg Stohr, who also was first last year to report that the mandate was upheld, wrote 18 (!) different ledes!

That’s not to say, however, that Stohr’s work on the story started this morning at 10:00 a.m. No, he began working on the story a month-and-a-half ago, he says. Much of the work consisted of thinking through all the intricate legal scenarios that the Supreme Court could possibly concoct in deciding the DOMA case and the Prop 8 case, which also made news today. The brainstorming process, says Stohr, ultimately yielded 18 story ledes and many more headlines — all of which were ready for publication this morning. “We had ledes written for what do we say if we had a DOMA ruling but not Prop 8,” says Stohr, who emphasizes that Asseo and Drummond were critical to the effort. “What do we say if we have Prop 8 but not DOMA? And what do we say when we have both of them?”

He digested the opinion in roughly 30 seconds:

The winner among these outlets, Bloomberg News, put a three-person team on today’s rulings: Supreme Court reporter Greg Stohr, who’s been on the beat since 1998, plus editors Laurie Asseo and Bob Drummond. Once the decision became available this morning, Stohr grabbed it and hustled over to the cubicle in the Supreme Court’s press area, where he worked with Asseo and Drummond to assess the document and what it said.

Stohr checked that the ruling said “affirmed.” He checked on the headnotes. He checked how the various justices lined up on the decision. Then he and the team pushed out their take on the situation.

Total elapsed time: 30 seconds. Says the 46-year-old Stohr in an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog: “I’m going to guess that it was something like 30 seconds between the time that they gave us the opinions and the time that the headlines went out.”

In fairness, the outcome of this case was much, much, much easier to decipher than NFIB. But kudos anyway. CNN, however, took its time.

CNN was the exception. Burned before in the health care ruling, it moved much more slowly this time around; the anchors and commentators waited several minutes longer than their rivals before reporting the DOMA ruling. “We’re going through the writings of the justices,” the CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer said at 10:05 a.m. “We want to be precise, obviously.”

Of course, Blitzer blew the coverage last year.