If you were watching cable news when the Supreme Court handed down its ruling, you were probably confused at first. Initially, both CNN and Fox News announced that the individual mandate had been struck down, only to come back a few minutes later and correct themselves, after their screaming chyrons and web site headlines had already gone up announcing the administration's defeat. Let's forget about Fox, since they're just a bunch of nincompoops anyway. The more interesting question concerns CNN. The most common explanation for this screwup is that they have come to value being first over being right, which is true enough. But I think it also suggests that they don't really understand their audience. And by trying to be just as fast as MSNBC or Fox, they lost an opportunity to differentiate themselves.
My guess is that the people who work at CNN have in their heads an imagined audience made up of people like them, people who think it matters if a particular piece of news is delivered at 10:20 and 30 seconds instead of 10:20 and 50 seconds. They're terrified that someone might glance away from their broadcast to look at Twitter, so they desperately try to keep up, which means running with information before they have it locked down.
But is that really a game they can win? Let's say they were right, and they announced the news a whole 10 seconds before their competitors. Were any viewers going to say, "Gee, those folks at CNN are really on the ball. I'm going to tune in there for my news from now on"? Of course not. But what if they had tried something different? They had plenty of notice, and a mistake like the one they made was easily foreseeable.What if they had started saying, days ago, something like the following:
"On Thursday, the Supreme Court is going to issue its decision on the Affordable Care Act. When court decisions like this one come down, there's an initial period of confusion and a mad dash to figure out what it means. The language of these decisions is often very complex, and it can take a while to sort through it. So we're going to make you a promise: We'll tell you everything we know as quickly as we can, but we won't give you any screaming headlines about who won or lost until we're absolutely sure. Our competitors can deliver those headlines a few seconds before us, and that's fine. But we care enough about our viewers to make sure we get it right, so you understand the news instead of just having it shouted at you."
If they had said that over and over, starting back on Monday or so, media reporters everywhere would have written stories about CNN's renewed commitment to accuracy and how they're upholding the finest journalistic traditions. And maybe they would have gained a few viewers.