Media Absurdity, the ACA Decision, and Society's Need for a Strong Press

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

About two weeks ago, I was contacted by a broadcast network, asking if I would be willing to be interviewed after the Supreme Court ruled on the ACA. I asked about the format, and they said that it would either be a panel discussion (which, they assured me after I asked insistently, would most definitely not be one of those absurd shows where people yell at each other) or simply an interview by a reporter. I told them that I would be happy to do so, under either format.

Earlier this week, the producer called me to set things up for yesterday's big announcement. She told me that they would want me to be interviewed on the steps of the Supreme Court at 9, 10, and 11am. I told them that the 10am slot would be odd, because the decision could be released in the middle of the interview. They told me that the interview would proceed as planned, even if the decision came out at exactly 10am.

I suddenly flashed on a memory from December 2000, when I was watching network coverage of the Bush v. Gore decision. I remembered vividly the ridiculous site of a reporter juggling a microphone and the slip opinion, flipping through the document and reading random phrases from the text. Because the decision did not say "Bush wins" on page 1, the unfortunate reporter was stuck babbling on live TV, providing nothing of value to viewers (except a memorably embarrassing moment for everyone involved).

I decided to contact the TV producer and tell her that I could not do the 10am slot. In an email, I explained that there would nothing to be gained by having me on TV, either talking again about an opinion that had not yet been released, or finding myself interrupted mid-interview by the release of the decision. I did not mention Bush v. Gore, but I did point out that this was going to be a particularly complicated decision, with the likelihood of different justices combining in different voting blocs on different issues. Snap analysis would be worse than nothing.

I soon received a call from the producer. She said that she completely understood my concern, and that they would not expect me to be able to speed-read the opinion. She then contradicted herself, saying that they would merely want me to give my best reaction to the opinion as soon as it came out, based on whatever I was able to read quickly. I immediately said, "No, I won't do that." She then tried to reassure me that they would not mind if I got it wrong. I said, "No, this is not a reasonable way to provide expert analysis."

She then said -- apparently thinking that this would help -- that "we'll just have you and the reporter divide up the pages, so that the two of you can get through it more quickly." I did not bother to say, "You're making it worse!" I simply said that it was ridiculous to think that one could react on the spot to an opinion of this magnitude and complexity. Finally, she said, "But all the other networks are going to do it this way!" At that point, I simply told her to find someone else.

Perhaps I was being a worry-wart, worrying my silly little head about nothing. Oh, right. For those of you who missed it, yesterday morning both CNN and Fox did exactly what I described. I happened to be checking CNN's website after 10am, and the first headline that came up was: "Mandate Struck Down." There was no associated story. (I realize that The Onion does headlines without stories, but ...) This was happening even as Scotusblog was accurately reporting the opposite result.

(Scotusblog, by the way, proved that it is at least possible not to embarrass oneself with real-time reporting. Even so, they were more careful, occasionally simply posting things like: "We're still here. It's a complicated opinion. Back with more as soon as possible." Even so, they did have to correct themselves on a more minor point, having originally written that people could refuse to pay the penalty AND not get insurance. They handled it well, but speed can still kill.)

CNN's online headline was changed after a few minutes to something like: "Court Rules on Health Care." Then, a few minutes after that, the headline became "UPHELD." I learned by watching The Daily Show last night (hilarious clip here) that this blunder was happening live on TV as well, at both CNN and Fox. Jon Stewart's people even managed to include the clip from "Airplane" in which the reporters in fedoras rush to the phone booths, knocking them over.

I realize that it is all too easy to mock news organizations these days. It was, however, pretty amazing to watch my prediction come true in real time. It was all so utterly predictable. After all, if some tax/econ professor can see it coming a mile away, how hard could it be for people with actual experience in the news business?

The problem, of course, is that major media have not gotten the "scoop mentality" out of their collective DNA. News producers apparently still have in mind the classic reporting on guilty-or-innocent verdicts (as in the old movies, with those guys in fedoras -- and occasionally Rosalind Russell -- shouting their copy into old-timey telephones). A multi-part Supreme Court decision does not fit that model.

The problem goes deeper than that, however. One problem, of course, is Fox itself. Beyond any scoop mentality, that network's insistence on getting facts wrong is nothing short of astonishing. For example, even after correcting their incorrect report that the ACA had been struck down, Fox (as I saw on Stephen Colbert's mocking coverage of the mock-worthy coverage) ran a banner across the bottom of the screen reading: "Supreme Court Rules Individual Mandate Will Become a Tax." What? That is not even close to what the Court said. The Court said that the mandate could pass constitutional muster, because it was in substance a tax for "taxing power" purposes. It is not even possible to imagine how to get from that to a statement that the mandate "will become a tax."

Facts-be-damned spin is Fox's calling card, of course. What is especially disturbing is that the journalists at the non-Fox outlets -- including print outlets -- are increasingly simply inept. For example, I gave an interview to a print reporter earlier this week, in anticipation of the ACA ruling. To his credit, he admitted that he had just been assigned to the story, and he knew nothing about the case. I suspected that he was being somewhat unduly modest, but I was happy to walk him through it. After more than an hour, however, having talked from various angles about the activity/inactivity distinction -- its absence in existing precedent, its susceptibility to "framing" differences, and so on -- it suddenly became clear that he honestly had never even heard of the activity/inactivity distinction. When I told him what the conservatives were trying to get the Supremes to adopt, the reporter suddenly perked up and said, "Oh, THAT makes sense to me. Now I get it!"

This was not, moreover, a reporter for some minor rag. I see no reason to name-and-shame a reporter or his news organization, because it is sufficient to say that this is a national news operation that is well-known to everyone who follows the news with any regularity. How could such a major organization put such an unprepared reporter on such an important case? One answer is that there are no longer many good journalists left doing these jobs. Staffs have been cut severely, pay is down, and the best reporters have been paid to take early retirements. (I do not know whether, to take but two examples, Linda Greenhouse or David Cay Johnston left The New York Times because they had become too expensive to keep on staff. Certainly, however, the Times has also been hollowed out.)

All of this is happening, moreover, to an industry that has never been as great as it sees itself. Nearly everyone I know has had experience with reporters simply getting stories wrong, even after the facts were explained patiently. There is a value in journalists being generalists (just as there is a value in law faculty remaining broadly informed enough to comment on each other's work), but a good generalist reporter must be capable of getting up to speed quickly. The people who are good at that -- and, much worse for the future, the young people who have the basic intelligence and skills to become good at that -- are not finding jobs in journalism.

I have been worried about how the Great Recession is being used as an excuse to squeeze the last breath of life out of labor unions, to hollow out public spending on social welfare agencies, to justify privatization of government services, and (most worrisome from my personal standpoint) to destroy America's still-pretty-great system of higher education. The problems with American journalism began before the Great Recession, but it is difficult not to see an acceleration in the decline of journalism. Ultimately, such a decline serves the powerful and the ruthless, who are glad not to have prying reporters exposing their activities.

The corporations that now own the major news organizations might not consciously wish to see their reporters humiliate themselves, especially in the way that happened so spectacularly yesterday. It is difficult to see, however, how the people who control those corporations do not gain in the long run (or even the medium-short run) from further public disrespect for the press. Underfunded news gathering is, it turns out, occasionally spectacularly entertaining. It is also, however, simply good news for those (in both politics and business) who always hated the media.