dewey-defeats-trumanWe’ve probably all seen that famous photo of the victorious President Harry S Truman triumphantly holding up a copy of the Chicago Tribune that called the election results for the other side. For decades it has been the exemplar of the hazards of jumping to conclusions, as well as the problems of gathering facts quickly when the speed of communication is limited, But could such a thing happen in the high-speed Internet age? It seems the answer is yes.

The Dewey vs. Truman incident happened because at the time the Tribune had to go to press several hours earlier than usual, due to issues with the way it was printed—so the paper had to be printed before all the election results were actually in, basing its estimates on early poll returns that suggested Republican Thomas E. Dewey had won. (It helped that this was what the editors of the Tribune wanted to believe—they didn’t like Truman very much at all.) It turned out that Truman won on the strength of some very slim swing vote margins in several states—and the Chicago Tribune had to eat crow.

You would think this couldn’t happen in the Internet era, when news is gathered and reported lightning fast. But as we’ve just seen with CNN and Fox, it can still occur, and for at least partly similar reasons.

The modern incident had to do with the Supreme Court’s consideration of Obama’s health care plan. As with most legal decisions, the court’s reasoning can be intricate and involved (the decision weighed in at 193 pages), and when the ruling was issued CNN and Fox, who had both been heavily rooting for the law to be overturned, seized on what looked like Chief Justice John Roberts saying that a “mandate” for health care was clearly unconstitutional, and went to press as fast as they could in the hope of scooping everybody else. They didn’t see the big “however…” where Roberts said, essentially, that Congress lied and “Obamacare” wasn’t actually a “mandate” after all but a tax, and Congress did have the constitutional authority to do that.

So there we have the same two elements as the classic Truman-era gaffe: news sources wanting to believe a particular result was in, and jumping to conclusions from the first bit of news they got to report it as quickly as possible.

As Wolf Blitzer was speaking, CNN ran an on-screen headline: “Supreme Ct. Kills Individual Mandate.” Correspondent John King called the ruling “a dramatic blow to the policy and to the president politically.”

On Fox News, anchor Bill Hemmer was reporting with this headline: “Supreme Court Finds Health Care Individual Mandate Unconstitutional.”

Both networks soon corrected their mistakes, but the damage had been done.

The span of “as quickly as possible” has shrunk from hours down to minutes, but the pressure is on—especially since the advent of social media and its power to break stories lightning-fast. Is it even realistic to try to have a “scoop” of a national story anymore given the timeframes involved? It’s pretty obvious that the faster you work, the more mistakes you make, so sooner or later something like this was bound to happen.

In the Internet age, as the New York Times and other news sources who waited discovered, it may be better to be a few minutes later and right, than first and wrong.


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