Health-Care Reform's Supreme Court Showdown

06.28.12

Train Wreck: How the Media Kept Blowing It on Obamacare

Journalists predicted the law would be upheld, then that it was toast--and then botched the big moment. Howard Kurtz examines the debacle.

The Obama administration has survived a train wreck.

We’re not so sure about the media.

During the Supreme Court’s oral arguments over Obamacare in March, CNN’s legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin famously said this: “This was a train wreck for the Obama administration. This law looks like it’s going to be struck down. All of the predictions, including mine, that the justices would not have a problem with this law were wrong.”

Um, make that wrong twice.

And to make matters worse, CNN and Fox News blew the initial reporting of the ruling Thursday morning. Among those who were misled: Barack Obama himself.

The leader of the free world, reduced to getting the news from television like everyone else, briefly thought he had lost the landmark case. White House aides say he watched on a set with four split screens—and watched in dismay as two of them said the high court had struck down the health care mandate. The disappointment lasted less than a minute, until White House counsel Kathrym Ruemmler burst in with the news, but it must have been a long few moments for Obama.

In upholding the president’s health-care law, the John Roberts court shocked the capital precisely because the media mavens had concluded that the law’s individual mandate was about to be consigned to the dustbin of history. Toobin may have been the most visible commentator venturing a bold prediction, but he had plenty of company.

This is the problem with so much media prognostication. We’re bad enough at forecasting presidential primaries and vice-presidential picks. But to try to divine what a court may do in a complicated legal case borders on malpractice.

The notion that the health-insurance mandate was in grave danger was embedded even in straight news accounts. The Washington Post’s lead after the oral arguments: “The Supreme Court's conservative justices appeared deeply skeptical Tuesday that a key component of President Obama’s sweeping health-care law is constitutional, endangering the most ambitious domestic program to emerge from Congress in decades.”

To try to divine what a court may do in a complicated legal case borders on malpractice.

Perhaps. But oral arguments are a time for probing weaknesses in each side’s case and perhaps playing devil’s advocate. Yet many made the leap to reading the justices’ minds.

The Post was at it again last week: “Some prominent legal scholars say a series of tactical decisions by President Obama’s legal team may have hurt the chances of saving his landmark health-care legislation from being gutted by Supreme Court conservatives.”

In political parlance, the expectations game was that Obama would lose.

And yet this represented a flip-flop of major proportions for the news business. After Obama pushed the health-care bill through Congress two years ago, the prevailing opinion in the media and legal establishments was that the law was certain to be upheld. Even as governors and attorneys general from 20 states filed suit against Obamacare, the media coverage portrayed this as a fringe effort with little chance of success.

When the long-awaited decision arrived Thursday morning, two cable-news channels botched the moment.

As Wolf Blitzer was speaking, CNN ran an on-screen headline: “Supreme Ct. Kills Individual Mandate.” Correspondent John King called the ruling “a dramatic blow to the policy and to the president politically.”

On Fox News, anchor Bill Hemmer was reporting with this headline: “Supreme Court Finds Health Care Individual Mandate Unconstitutional.”

Both networks soon corrected their mistakes, but the damage had been done.

“CNN regrets that it didn't wait to report the full and complete opinion regarding the mandate,” the network said in a statement. “We made a correction within a few minutes and apologize for the error.”

That embarrassment capped the earlier speculation by much of the media that turned out to be flat wrong.

Days after his “train wreck” comment, I asked Toobin, a former prosecutor, whether he had gone too far.

“I have to say it makes me a little nervous that I went out on a limb like that,” he said.

A cautionary tale for the rest of us.