On June 28, the biggest story of the day was the Supreme Court's 5-4 vote to uphold the Affordable Care Act. For a brief period that morning, however, the coverage of the story itself became the story.
For those who missed it: As the ruling was announced, Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts said that the law's individual mandate was not valid under the Constitution's commerce clause, but that it was valid according to Congress' power to levy taxes. Both CNN and Fox, agreeing on something for the first time since they both got sick of Glenn Beck, jumped the gun after the bit about the commerce clause and erroneously reported that the individual mandate had been struck down. As the full story developed -- that is, as Roberts finished reading -- both channels issued sheepish retractions, but their haste had already invited so much ridicule that by midday, Associated Press editor David Scott had sent out an email telling his staffers to stop making fun of the error.
Meanwhile, a similar story has been unfolding in Congress, albeit with far less coverage, due in large part to the all-consuming nature of the healthcare-coverage court case. House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., has been engaged in an investigation of a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives project known as Operation Fast and Furious. The undertaking, started under President Bush and continued under President Obama, ostensibly involved allowing guns to be carried over the border -- "gun walked," in the lingo -- to a Mexican drug cartel to build a case against it. Operations ended disastrously when Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was found shot dead, apparently killed by cartel members. Authorities found at the scene guns that were among those tracked.
Attorney General Eric Holder's assertion of executive privilege to avoid turning over documents relating to the operation led to the GOP-controlled House of Representatives voting to hold him in contempt the same day as the Supreme Court ruling. However, just prior to the vote, an investigative piece by Katherine Eban for Fortune magazine dropped a bombshell: Fast and Furious did not actually involve gun walking. In fact, Eban wrote, "[j]ust the opposite: [ATF agents] say they seized weapons whenever they could but were hamstrung by prosecutors and weak laws, which stymied them at every turn." Eban obtained this information by having the patience -- and regard for accuracy -- to conduct a six-month investigation. Meanwhile, Issa was on television detailing an elaborate conspiracy theory wherein the federal government deliberately allowed the operation to fail to drum up support for gun control. The mainstream media, even if they didn't give credence to Issa's side of things, made no efforts to scrutinize the central premise of gun walking, reporting that aspect as an undisputed fact for months. Long-term investigations just don't pull in ratings quite as well, I guess.
Our primary reference point for the media reporting before all the facts are in is the famous photograph of a just-re-elected Harry Truman holding the edition of the Chicago Tribune declaring that his Republican opponent, Thomas Dewey, had been elected; however, as iconic as that Dewey-Defeats-Truman image is, the current trend exemplified by the above examples is far more troubling.
The Tribune's error was the result of a deeply flawed polling system that led to an inaccurate prediction. Both of the modern examples, however, could have been avoided through nothing but simple patience. Patience, unfortunately, isn't what we want from our media today or at least, it's not what they think we want. Twitter and other social media have given not just our media, but civilians too, an unprecedented ability to speedily convey and receive information, and in a situation where things are happening quickly and with little order -- like last year's tragic incident at Virginia Tech, for instance -- that kind of instant news can be invaluable. But here's the thing: It's only invaluable, or helpful at all, if we can be patient enough to make sure it's accurate.
If either Fox or CNN had seen fit to wait for Roberts to finish reading, they might have been scooped, but they would have been the first to report the decision accurately. Instead, they scrambled for an exclusive and not only embarrassed themselves, but briefly misled millions of Americans who were only listening in the first place because they trusted they would get accurate coverage. And a free press that cares more about being first than being correct might as well not be a free press at all.