On March 30, 1981, President Reagan was shot, so was James Brady, his Press Secretary. Brady was grievously wounded, and ABC, CBS and NBC reported his death. Bernie Shaw, CNN's Washington anchorman, did not. Despite pressure from the Washington bureau and Atlanta (including me), Bernie would not voice those words because the source of the story was not in the operating room, and had not seen Brady die. In retrospect, it was one of CNN's greatest moments. Bernie Shaw cared more about getting it right than getting it first.
Here's the background: CNN's Washington desk chief was Cissy Baker, the daughter of Senate Majority leader, Howard Baker. Baker's chief aid, had called Cissy first, and then the other three networks and said that Brady had died. Bernie's writer, Sandy Kenyon, passed the information on to Bernie, but Shaw refused to report it without corroborating evidence. Bernie said the other three networks had announced Brady's death citing a "top-level Congressional source", but the source was not in the operating room and did not witness Brady's death. Bernie told Kenyon "This is only one report, it is a confusing time, the man [Brady] may still be alive..."
Kenyon remembers people coming up to him in the newsroom and saying "What is wrong with our guy? What's the matter with him?". Bernie refuses to report Brady's death. Then other information starts trickling in. Kenyon remembers it as "Like a huge train that had been going forward and then starts to back up. I've been sending Bernie increasingly desperate notes and he ignores them...Then the train just backs up and backs up and backs up." Frank Reynolds at ABC is pounding the desk shouting "Let's get this right!" CBS and NBC retract the death claims. All three networks have egg on their face, Bernie had it right all along.
Last year, CNN pronounced Congresswoman Gifford dead. NPR was the first villain, it announced that the Congresswoman died. Fox News cited NPR and confirmed the death, claiming it had three reliable sources that backed up NPR's claim. CNN and MSNBC hesitated, but went along with the crowd 10 to 15 minutes later. None of the sources cited by the networks had been in the room, so they were all in violation of the Bernie Shaw rule.
CNN and Fox News reporting on last week's Supreme Court ruling on Obamacare was even worse -- they were both in the room when the ruling came in, but they couldn't wait the extra few seconds to get the ruling right. Bloomberg, Reuters and AP reported the story with twenty five seconds of the announcements, and they all got it right.
For CNN and Fox News, the race seems to be not who got it first, but who got it worst.