The Psychology Of Scooping, Ctd

Andrew Sullivan —  Jul 11 2012 @ 11:15am

A reader quotes me:

Yes, she is out of the loop. Of course getting there first in news matters - news, Amy, news, does the adjective ring any bells? The whole point of journalism is to get there first and be accurate. The tension between the two creates the profession. And Sullivan wants to remove one? Ack.

When it comes to reporting news that would not otherwise have come to light, of course, you are correct. But that’s not what this was about. The ruling was announced. The "get-it-first" crowd was hustling to bring this to light at the exact moment it was coming to light anyhow. There is no benefit to anyone in reporting something that is being made public 20 seconds before someone else. None. And it is most certainly not a scoop, which by definition requires actual digging or insight, as opposed to high-speed stenography.

Agreed in this particular instance, as was clear on the day itself. But to banish the whole idea of scooping your rivals in journalism, as Sullivan opined more broadly, is absurd. Another writes:

Whaddya mean "Ack"?  I love you, but sometimes you do have these totally bone-headed moments.

Yes, being first matters to some extent, but in the case of the SCOTUS ruling, how did it matter?  If someone was watching MSNBC or CBS, would they really switch channels because some internal warning system in their heads told them another channel had already reported the outcome?  Would anyone be kicking themselves over the fact that the channel they were watching was 3 seconds behind?  Do that many people really say to themselves: "Boy, that’s the last time I watch NBC, they weren’t first"?

All the networks were there, ready to deliver the decision, it wasn’t like ABC was covering porcupine races or something instead, saying to themselves, "Aw, we’ll get around to it tomorrow."  Wasn’t it much, much more humiliating for CNN to have their reporters and pundits bloviate for a full 7 minutes, offering themselves to the Daily Show to be used and abused like a groupie to a rock star?

During the crisis at the Munich Olympics, Reuters reported that all the hostages had been rescued and were alive and safe – even Walter Cronkite went on the air with it.  Roone Arledge deliberately waited until they had absolute confirmation, even though the reporters had a pretty good idea what had really happened, before Jim McKay said the unforgettable words: "… they’re all gone". Guess who won all the awards that year?


Newsflash! "News" is generally a noun, not an adjective. (Sorry for the snark, it's one of those afternoons)


It is totally to be expected that news organizations would rush to report the decision in the Obamacare case. Just like they would rush to report the outcome of Manny Pacquiao v. Timothy Bradley. But it was practically malpractice that CNN and Fox couldn't quickly figure out who won the case. The slip opinion distributed by the Supreme Court press office generally comes with a "Syllabus" in front, not itself authored by a justice or considered part of the decision, but considered authoritative in giving an understanding of the main opinion. The last paragraph of the Syllabus summarizes which judges joined in the main opinion, and to what extent, or concurred or dissented. The Syllabus does not summarize the concurrences and dissents. The end of the syllabus for NFIB v. Sibelius (page 6) reads as follows:

ROBERTS, C. J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II, and III–C, in which GINSBURG, BREYER, SOTOMAYOR, and KAGAN, JJ., joined; an opinion with respect to Part IV, in which BREYER and KAGAN, JJ., joined; and an opinion with respect to Parts III–A, III–B, and III–D. GINSBURG, J., filed an opinion concurring in part, concurring in the judgment in part, and dissenting in part, in which SOTOMAYOR, J., joined, and in which BREYER and KAGAN, JJ., joined as to Parts I, II, III, and IV. SCALIA, KENNEDY, THOMAS, and ALITO, JJ., filed a dissenting opinion. THOMAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion.

In other words, the four Democratic appointees were all in the majority to some extent and four of the five Republican appointees exclusively in the minority. Admittedly, it was unprecedented for Roberts to join the four most liberal justices on the Court in a 5-4 decision. It was also unprecedented for the four dissenters to refuse to join even the parts of the majority opinion with which they agreed and which were necessary to the outcome. (Thus creating debate in the legal blogosphere as to the precedential value of anything written about the Commerce Clause and Necessary and Proper Clause.)

Still, no reporter attached to the Supreme Court beat worth his or her salt could possibly think that an opinion joined by Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan, dissented to by Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito, struck down Obamacare. That last paragraph certainly indicated that the Chief's ruling was complicated. But it could not possibly indicate that Obamacare was held to be unconstitutional, and that paragraph could be found and digested in less than a minute. Goldstein reports that the aftermath in some quarters of CNN has been apoplectic. Understandably so.

The car wreck on the steps of the Supreme Court reminded some of the confusion when Bush v. Gore was released, but there is a crucial difference – that December 2000 opinion was per curiam, meaning no author and, more importantly, no Syllabus summarizing the holding and informing on who voted with whom. So one really did have to read through the legalese of the various opinions in order to accurately report the bottom line. And does anyone think it not important to report as quickly as possible on the vote of the nine robed members of the electorate who decided the outcome of a presidential election?

Another sends the above video:

Patton Oswalt actually hillariously explored this phenomena in May. I think it applies pretty well to the legacy of media obsession with scooping as well: it's all about bragging and ego, individual and organizational.