Like a lot of other people, I was waiting on the Supreme Court decision over health care legislation. At the time, I happened to be in the hospital awaiting the decision, but that’s really not a significant factor. However, when CNN, and then Fox News, announced the decision IMMEDIATELY after it was written, I didn’t get very excited. The reason being: I figured they’d probably get it wrong.
And they did. CNN first reported that it was repealed. It wasn’t. Fox News then announced something equally stupid, and they were wrong as well.
The important question is Why did both of them really screw up the decision?
Well, the answer is simple. Reporters write differently than Supreme Court justices. You see, the reporter process is to report the decision first, and then they continue to write the story, filling in relevant facts later. The most irrelevant facts are left for the end, just in case an editor has to snip the end of a story. This way, the important parts of a story remain untouched.
The Supreme Court doesn’t work that way. If they issue a 30 page majority opinion, that means that somewhere on page 17 or 18 you might actually get the decision. Everything else is legalese and details that back up that decision. Quite often, you can read for pages and still have no clue where they’re going with the decision.
I learned this in graduate school when I used to have to write briefs on Supreme Court decisions. There were times when I’d read through the whole thing and still couldn’t tell you what was the decision. When you’re a reporter, you’re expected to be able to figure out that ruling quickly, and what happened was they failed at it. They kept trying to read the first few pages of the brief and basically got lost. So, when they got it completely wrong, it made complete sense.
That’s why I waited. I figured after a couple of hours, someone would actually read through the whole thing and then report what actually happened.