Press Box

Supreme Flubs

Did network coverage of today’s sorta-kinda-landmark Supreme Court decision remind you of any other recent media goof? A bit after noon Eastern time today, CNN’s Web site led with a “Breaking News” headline reading: “Supreme Court declines to hear Bush challenge.” Then four or five minutes later they changed their tune. The court didn’t exactly reject his appeal, the site said. More like they affirmed it.

Other news outlets followed suit. Moments later the Washington Post’s Web site ran a headline announcing that the court had ruled for Bush. But they soon changed their minds too.

After these first headlines ran, reporters actually seem to have read the opinion, which told a rather different story. The court didn’t clearly rule for Bush or against him. The essence of the court’s per curiam brief was that the justices weren’t quite sure what the Florida Supremes had said in their Nov. 21 opinion, or more precisely, what authority they had relied upon in saying it. If they relied on the state constitution for their decision (as some evidence implied), that wouldn’t cut it. But if they were relying on their interpretive powers to resolve contradictory provisions of the Florida statute (which other evidence pointed to) then, well, maybe that was OK. We’re sending it back to you, the court seemed to be telling the Floridians. Give it another whack.

Not exactly good news for the vice president (considering that every second counts, and this means more delays), but hardly a straight-out Bush victory either.

Soon enough CNN and other news outlets shifted gears and ran a more or less accurate reading of the court’s decision. By 12:30 p.m. the Washington Post was on to the more neutral-sounding “High Court Sets Aside FLA Ruling.” By the early afternoon had “U.S. Supreme Court today ordered the Florida Supreme Court to take another look at a vote recount decision that benefited Democrat Al Gore.” (While admitting the early flub, a spokesperson for CNN noted that “when the stories themselves went up [sometime later] they were accurate.”)

Some of the confusion (if that’s not too generous a word for it) may have been caused by an overhasty reading of the term “remand,” which in most cases would have signaled a victory for Bush, but in this instance signified something more muddled. One network that got it pretty much right was MSNBC. “We try to prioritize speed,” said Bob Aglow, the network’s executive producer for news, “but not at the expense of accuracy. We took the extra three or four minutes to look over the opinion and get it right.” Self-serving spin? Of course. But, in this case, pretty much accurate.

So stop beating up on Voter News Service. The networks can bungle a call all by themselves!