Friday, June 29

Breaking News: Dewey Still Beats Truman

The famously inaccurate banner, Dewey Defeats Truman, lives again as CNN is the first to break the news on the Supreme Court health care story. It was the first outlet to have a story at the ready.

Unfortunately for CNN, it was the wrong news. It was corrected only after 5-10 minutes of commentary on its television programming and thousands of people were prompted to read the headline: "Mandate struck down." Some even received news prompts on their mobile devices, feeling a pang of elation or disgust depending on where they stood on the issue.

But whatever they felt was replaced by a momentary lapse of reason and confusion. Whether they believed the headline or not, they were about to discover it was wrong. And in the weeks that follow, they might consider the broader ramifications of what this means beyond a chuckle.

Accuracy is the first rule of journalism and it just doesn't exist.

Eyeballs matter more, even when the news is reported wrong. In fact, it seems very unlikely the person responsible will be fired. They are likely to get a raise. The traffic, links, and mentions drove more traffic and attention to CNN, not less. And most people will forget about it, much like most don't even know who Dewey might have been.


In fact, technically, the media is calling the Supreme Court decision upheld. However, it wasn't upheld on the grounds the government had argued for. The government cannot may you buy a product you do not want or need. It can, however, tax you for not buying that product or service. Go figure.


This isn't the only time CNN or news organizations have been wrong about their interpretations. Jeffrey Toobin, CNN senior legal analyst, originally surmised it would be a 8-1 decision in favor of the bill. Linda Greenhouse with the New York Times aggressively argued the position that the mandate did not exceed Congressional powers.

It seems pretty clear now that both were wrong. The decision was 5-4 and the the Supreme Court was pointed in saying that the mandate could not be tied to the commerce clause. While the decision still expands the power of government, especially the power held by the Internal Revenue Service (the bureau charged with collecting the fees) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (the bureau that eventually decides what health care you will get).

The problem with the reporting, of course, was the result of reading the first few pages of the decision rather than reading the entire opinion before reporting it. The reporting of speculation, on the other hand, was simply a case of people using the news to support a particular position or idea a.k.a. affirmation media that delivers exactly what people want to hear while swaying others too.

The media has to get a handle on what it wants to be. 

Nowadays, business owners and executives would be better off reading social media sentiment analysis than relying on the news to make decisions. The reason is simple enough. Without objective reporting, you can never be sure of the facts or how people will react to the various biased stories.

I don't mean the single error by CNN and other news outlets. I mean everything leading up to it and everything that will follow. The mistaken headline and knee jerk reaction is just a symptom of a greater problem. When the media can no longer be trusted to tell the truth or get it right, it fails to be relevant.

What this country needs now, perhaps more than ever, is a media outlet that restores objective journalism as its central idea. It might even be the right time, given the existing media outlets people turn to the most are failing to separate what constitutes news and what constitutes political opinion or two sets of talking heads.

Or, borrowing from a different example I shared several years ago, we need reporters who will do the hard work. Instead of talking to two people to get their opinions on whether or not a flag flapping in the wind is loud, we need a reporter to go to the location and report on the truth of it. It's loud. It's not loud.

Who knows? Maybe objective reporting could gain a foothold again once people become wary of sensitized stories and hearing what they want to hear at the expense of the truth. Or maybe not.
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