The Media Calls It Early - Again

Stephanie By Stephanie Herman
Rightgrrl Co-Founder
December 5, 2000
After what was obviously a sloppy skimming of the U.S. Supreme Court Per Curiam decision today, the Boston Globe initially sub-headed its AP story on the decision this way: "The US Supreme Court, siding with George W. Bush, has reversed a Florida Supreme Court decision that had allowed a manual recount of votes in that state's presidential contest.

It was obvious from the AP story that followed, however, that the U.S. Supreme Court did not reverse the Florida Supreme Court decision. Instead, the high court found no legal basis on which the Florida Supreme Court may have acted, so it vacated the earlier ruling and remanded the case back to the state Supreme Court "for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion."

But other media guns were just waiting to be jumped. Despite immediate spin from the Gore attorneys, who argued rather reasonably that the U.S. Supreme Court decision was a "no-win" for both sides, various media online portals began to chime in to the contrary.
CNN: "In a victory for George W. Bush, the U.S. Supreme Court has vacated the Florida Supreme Court's ruling extending the deadline for vote certification in the state's presidential election."

MSNBC: "The ruling was a victory for Republican George W. Bush"

CBS: [headline] US Supreme Court Backs Bush

ABC: [headline] Boost for Bush; "a blow to Al Gore's efforts to win the White House"
Many prominent newspapers also called this a decision for Bush, within that first hour after the story broke:
Atlanta Journal/Constitution: "partial victory for Bush"

USA Today: "apparent victory for Bush"; "Gore setback"

NY Times: "a momentary victory to Gov. George W. Bush"

Boston Globe: [headline] Gore dealt a blow Chicago Tribune: [headline] US Supreme Court Decides in Bush's Favor

Dallas Morning News: "The U.S. Supreme Court ruled for George W. Bush"

Washington Times: [headline] Supreme court rules in favor of Bush
You wouldn't know it from reading the media's initial reaction, but it's not yet clear if this court ruling is a victory for Bush. If the Florida Supreme Court is able to argue a convincing legal basis for their decision to extend the deadline for vote certification, then Bush may well lose this battle.

According to most legal analysts, odds are that the media is right and Bush will emerge the winner here, but was the media ethically correct to call it before they clearly understood the text of the ruling? Or before the Florida Supreme Court had a chance to respond? Did the media get ahead of itself, yet again? This rush to judgment might unpleasantly remind us of election night, when every major network called the state of Florida for Al Gore, before polls in the central time zone there had even closed.

Only one television network seems to have learned from the election night blunder; Fox News led the story on its website by simply saying, "High Court Vacates Fla. Ruling," and headlining the article with: "U.S. Supreme Court Overturns Florida Supreme Court." Several newspapers also showed editorial restraint, including the Washington Post, Denver Post, LA Times, Chicago Sun-Times, Seattle Times, and the New York Post, all of which refused to label the decision when introducing various AP reports.

A few hours later, once the text of the ruling had been studied more carefully, reporters had all but erased any win/lose adjectives from their news portals. MSNBC replaced an early report stating that, "the ruling was a victory for Republican George W. Bush," with a more neutral piece that ended in this way: "A source close to the Bush campaign, who spoke with NBC News on condition of anonymity, said the Republican^s legal team was carefully reviewing the decision. But the initial reaction among the Texas governor^s supporters was positive."

In fact, by 3:30 pm EDT, most coverage by the major media had moved away from describing today's news as a victory for anyone, and focused, instead, on the complex intricacies of the ruling^s actual text. CNN eventually contradicted its own earlier conclusion, saying that, "Republicans, who back George W. Bush for president, say they're not celebrating." Reports continued to conflict throughout the afternoon, based on the subtle differences between overturning, reversing, and vacating a court decision. Only ABC, retaining the suggestion that this was a "blow" for Gore, and CBS continued to call the ruling for Bush.

The question here is, Why call it for anybody? We expect that sort of interpretation from pundits, spokesmen, and legal analysts, and they were out in force today, offering interpretations up. But that^s analysis. Whatever happened to reporters limiting themselves to news reporting?

In their haste to educate a readership they don't trust to correctly interpret the news, most major media outlets failed to correctly interpret the news. Again. And while kudos should go to Fox News for holding back from an over-reliance on adjectives, it's still not clear whether large liberal newspapers like the Denver Post and the LA Times decided against calling this one for Bush only out of pure displeasure with the idea.

This article copyright © 2000 by Stephanie Herman and may not be reproduced in any form without the express written consent of its author. All rights reserved.