Several days ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that President Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment, the Patient Protection and Affordability Act, (Health care reform), was constitutional. But embarrassingly, within minutes of the Court’s release of its decision, Fox and CNN first reported that the act had been declared unconstitutional. In retrospect the reason for the error was readily apparent. The Court had decreed that the mandate to buy insurance was coercive and thus not constitutional, but it was constitutional as a tax. Reporters who hurriedly flipped through the text, read the mandate argument first and the tax argument only later. Fox corrected itself within two minutes, but it took CNN a full seven minutes, after its announcement had circulated on the web and through its tweets. As one report notes, this error “was particularly embarrassing for CNN, which has suffered through one of its worst ratings quarters in several years, primarily due to a paucity of big news. The network eagerly awaited the court's decision, scheduled for 10 a.m., running a "countdown clock" on its screen for hours.”
In reporting on the mistake is the press making a “mountain out of a molehill?” Maybe, but a Buzzfeed report notes that CNN employees themselves were very upset. A half-dozen top on-air reporters and producers were “furious at what they see as yet another embarrassment to a network stuck in third place in the cable news race. ‘We had a chance to cover it right. And some people in here don’t get what a big deal getting it wrong is. Morons.’ ‘Shameful,’ another long-time correspondent told BuzzFeed. ‘It's outrageous and embarrassing,’ a third CNN staffer vented. ‘Maybe this will shake the company into understanding that CNN has not been the 'most trusted name in news' for a very long time.’” In an internal memo, CNN promised an investigation into the mistake. “Today we failed to adhere to our own standard; namely it’s better to be right than to be first. We take mistakes seriously, especially mistakes on such important stories. We are looking into exactly what happened and we will learn from it.”
At one level, an investigation hardly seems necessary. It seems clear what happened. The reporter, Jeffrey Toobin, who first got hold of the Supreme Court decision while inside the court, first read that the mandate had been ruled unconstitutional, and instead of reading on, reported this fact to Kate Bolduan, CNN’s congressional reporter. Everyone was primed to believe that should the mandate be declared unconstitutional the entire act would be ruled out of order. The pressure to be first with the news was great, so Toobin instead of urging caution until he read, however hastily, through the entire text, presumed that the legislation was dead.
Perhaps we can learn more from CNN’s response to the mistake than from the mistake itself. I suggest that the mistake stirred emotions that are stimulated by what we can call “extreme environments.” An environment is extreme when participants feel that the viability of the organization to which they belong is not secure and moreover, never will be. This feeling is linked to objective conditions, most importantly, hyper-competition. Witness for example the failure of Palm, the likely failure of Research in Motion (of Blackberry fame), and Yahoo’s stagnation; all companies, which not so long ago, symbolized the internet revolution and seemed on their way to becoming institutions.
As we noted in an earlier post, CNN has been losing market share and standing as viewers have come to prefer news tinged by political bias, with Fox attracting viewers on the right, and MSNBC, viewers on the left. CNN’s reputation can therefore only be based on accuracy and timeliness. But viewers care less about the first, and the World Wide Web provides the second. This suggests that CNN lacks what marketers call a “unique selling proposition.” Instead, CNN makes money largely because it is included in the price of cable packages. Should cable companies “unbundle” their offerings, who will buy CNN? This is why it looks fragile, however many resources its reporters have presently at their command.
It seems straightforward that facing time pressure and competition people can make serious errors. The situation can create anxiety, clouding peoples’ judgment. But if the organization is experienced as fragile, the people who sustain it feel that the organization’s setting is unforgiving. One result is that errors feel more consequential than they might seem to outsiders. This may be why CNN staffers reacted so harshly to the mistake.
Thomas Kolditz a retired brigadier general, who led the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, for 12 years, has written about leadership in extreme situations. He suggests that in such situations, where for example soldiers make life and death decisions, there can be “too much motivation.” People do not need to be revved up. Paradoxically, because the situation is so demanding in itself, additional emotional arousal can be detrimental. One is reminded here of the calm tone pilots sustain when, in facing flight emergencies, they collaborate with another and ground controllers to land a plane safely.
One question Kolditz’s work raises, is whether or not the investigation into a mistake should itself be conducted in an emotional context of low arousal that is, with dispassion. If so, what are the “design criteria” for such an investigation? For example, one criterion, might be that no single person is to blame. It is presumed that the total situation, which demanded everyone’s participation, is the source of the error. Another, might be that the most senior people take responsibility for what was the organization’s total response to the situation. It would be useful to imagine what other criteria would apply.
But dispassion may prove difficult. Psychoanalysts speak of "persecutory anxiety" to describe a person who feels chronically under attack. Extreme environments may induce this kind of anxiety. One lesson we have learned from psychoanalysis is that when this anxiety predominates people may become punishing and unforgiving towards each other just at the moment when they need each other the most.