Down By Law

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For television and the nation, Tuesday was literally Judgment Day, and the Supreme Court steps in Washington were the hill of Megiddo. And Revelation-style, the 65-page verdict in Bush v. Gore came like a thief in the night. It was hustled by network runners, around 10 p.m., into the waiting hands of TV's star reporting talent. Bundled in overcoats and parkas, the stand-ups were trembling, probably not just because of the cold. Here was the money shot, the final score they'd waited through five weeks of overtime to call.

If only they knew what the hell it said.

In the confused minutes after the flummoxing, unsummarized decision came down, its meaning depended on what network you were watching. On MSNBC, Gore was toast. On CNN and Fox, he still had a chance. ABC's Jackie Judd and Jeffrey Toobin, asked for their instant read by Peter Jennings, reacted as if served a baked rat. ("I'm going to turn it over to Jeffrey Toobin," she offered; "I was hoping to turn it over to Jackie," he demurred.) NBC's tag team of Dan Abrams and Pete Williams flipped madly through the opinions, looking with their topcoats, windswept hair and booklets like Victorian gentlemen caroling in legalese. On CBS, Dan Rather--trading spin with analyst Jonathan Turley though neither had read the ruling--was adamant on one point: those of us on Eastern time would definitely see Judging Amy when this report was over.

But the real judicial drama was right in front of us. It was a perfect ending to Postelection 2000, in which a creaky 18th century legal-political process ran smack against the more!-faster!-now! demands of 21st century media. Fast news, like fast food, requires prep work, and modern journalists have grown accustomed to pre-leaked and -summarized stories, the better to plan coverage and scare up file video. But like the DMV, the Supreme Court doesn't consider lack of patience on your part an emergency on its part. Without explanation, it delivered to the media a President wrapped in an enigma.

So the special reports turned into an impromptu bar exam, a live speed-reading contest in which reporters jumped to conclusions, sometimes qualified and sometimes not. Most networks first seized on the majority opinion, which seemed to imply that Gore might pull off a new recount. Rather said flat-out, "What [the ruling] does not do is in effect deliver the presidency to George Bush."

Except, of course, that it did, as his peers realized as they read on. Some measured up well. Abrams and Williams sussed in a few minutes that Gore had run out of time. But it was excruciating to watch CNN, where legal analyst Roger Cossack stalled pitiably for time as anchors Bernard Shaw and Judy Woodruff pressed him to draw a conclusion, while the clock ticked and rival MSNBC sounded taps for Gore. "So are you saying," Woodruff asked, "it appears that a recount could take place?" "Yes," he finally answered--an ultimately incorrect analysis the network stuck with well into the hour--though he pleaded futilely that it would be "irresponsible" to answer definitively before reading the whole ruling.

Obviously, Cossack didn't get the memo--responsible doesn't sell. After election night, when the networks botched the call of Florida twice, this was their last, best chance to get it right. So they applied what they learned from November. Namely, nothing. Again, they chose being fast over necessarily being right. And this time they didn't even have the excuse of bad data. The answer was in their chilly little hands; they just decided not to digest it before reporting. In general, they pulled off a remarkable feat of deadline analysis. Thing is, that used to be what you did after you absorbed the facts. The supreme chaos was testimony to TV news's inability to utter three little words: "We don't know."

Deans of journalism might sigh that episodes like this threaten a covenant of faith with the public. But if there ever really was one, it was shot long ago, as much because of audience sophistication as because of any failings of the media. The new-media-era covenant goes like this: we'll gratify you instantly--would you have kept watching a channel that waited half an hour to report anything?--and if we get it wrong, well, whoops!, stuff happens. In exchange, you get a new transparency: unfiltered access, not just to source material (like the Starr Report, the decision almost immediately went online) but to the journalistic process. Viewers Tuesday got to see the messy, imperfect metamorphosis through which conjecture coalesces into fact. It was spellbinding. It was educational. But it sure didn't restore anyone's absolute faith in TV. Consider the final insult. After all that, we didn't even get to see Judging Amy.