News staffers at the cable network CNN, long the gold standard in television news, were on the verge of open revolt Thursday after CNN blew the coverage on the most consequential news event of the year.
As Chief Justice John Roberts began reading his decision on the future of President Obama’s health care overhaul, the CNN team inside the courtroom jumped the gun, believing that Roberts was saying the individual mandate was unconstitutional and would be overturned.
A producer inside the courtroom, Bill Mears, communicated the information to a relatively junior reporter, Kate Bolduan, the face of the network’s coverage outside on the courthouse steps.
Bolduan then reported, on air, that the invidual mandate was “not valid,” citing producer Mears.
“It appears as if the Supreme Court justices struck down the individual mandate, the centerpiece,” of the law, she said.
Bolduan, a 2005 graduate of George Washington University who previously worked for a local news station in North Carolina, was named the network’s congressional correspondent last year.
The 29-year-old was also named one of Washington’s 50 Most Beautiful people in 2011 by The Hill.
Moments after Bolduan spoke, the false story began to metastasize inside the network’s online operation.
The erroneous breaking news was made into a chyron at the bottom of the screen. CNN also sent out a breaking news alert.
And a half dozen top on-air reporters and producers within the esteemed news organization told BuzzFeed they are furious at what they see as yet another embarrassment to a network stuck in third place in the cable news race, and torn between an identity as the leader in hard news and the success of their opinionated, personality-driven rivals, Fox News and MSNBC.
“Fucking humiliating,” said one CNN veteran. “We had a chance to cover it right. And some people in here don’t get what a big deal getting it wrong is. Morons.”
“Shameful,” another long-time correspondent told BuzzFeed.
“It’s outrageous and embarrassing,” a third CNN staffer vented. “Maybe this will shake the company into understanding that CNN has not been the ‘most trusted name in news’ for a very long time.”
A fourth CNN source noted simply “obviously, it’s embarrassing,” but defended legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, and stressed that it’s the challenge of breaking news.
“It looked to all the world like the chief justice was going to strike down the law,” legal analyst Toobin later said on air, seeking to explain the CNN confusion.
It took CNN seven minutes to correct the error, from Bolduan’s initial report at 10:07 am, a warning from Wolf Blitzer at 10:11 am, and finally an on air correction at approximately 10:14 am. Inside the network, staffers debated blame, and some of Bolduan’s colleagues described her as a skilled professional who was misinformed by the veteran producer.
CNN also released a statement explaining the mistake: “In his opinion, Chief Justice Roberts initially said that the individual mandate was not a valid exercise of Congressional power under the Commerce Clause. CNN reported that fact, but then wrongly reported that therefore the court struck down the mandate as unconstitutional. However, that was not the whole of the Court’s ruling. CNN regrets that it didn’t wait to report out the full and complete opinion regarding the mandate. We made a correction within a few minutes and apologize for the error.”
In recent weeks, CNN had been defending its slide in the ratings by staking its pride on excellent news coverage, while criticizing Fox and MSNBC’s partisan slant.
The mistake was not missed by its rivals. Tweeted NBC’s PR director Erika Masonhall: “Important to underscore something I said at @NBCNews social media workshop last week: We’d rather be right than first.”