'Watching American history': How TV news covered the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade

·3 min read

It was the bombshell everyone saw coming.

Expecting it did nothing to lessen its impact.

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in a decision handed down Friday, ending the constitutional right to abortion. CNN, Fox News and MSNBC all covered the decision live; ABC, CBS and NBC broke into programming with live coverage.

It’s a massive story that deserved massive coverage, and it got it.

“We are watching American history,” Bill Hemmer said on Fox News shortly after the decision was posted on the Court’s website at 10:10 a.m. EDT. That’s not hyperbole. Nor was Norah O’Donnell’s reaction on CBS.

“This is a historic day because after nearly 50 years the Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade,” she said, “overturning the constitutional right to an abortion and with that decision, Roe v. Wade is no longer the law of the land.”

More: Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, eliminating constitutional right to abortion

Reporters and anchors parsed the Supreme Court decision in real time

The impact is immediate in some cases and enormous in almost all, with states now deciding the legality of abortions.

“This is going to have enormous ramifications,” Jeffrey Toobin said on CNN, “but it all starts with the enormous effect on women who are going to lose the right to abortion.”

When the decision finally came, it took anchors and reporters some time to sort through it. They received the decision like everyone else — when it was published on the Supreme Court’s web page. So, what we saw wasn’t an immediate reaction; instead, reactions came in dribs and drabs as reporters parsed the decision.

It was interesting TV — reporting in real time, trying to figure out exactly what the Court had done and what it means for Americans who had been hanging on for the decision.

It’s a busy time for news generally, with the ongoing House hearings on the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, President Joe Biden calling for a gas-tax holiday and more. Despite this, all of the cable news networks spent Friday morning, Thursday morning — and Tuesday morning, for that matter — poised to cover the abortion ruling, with chyrons reading “Nation awaits Roe decision” and such running along the bottom of the screen. In a world of big news, this wasn't just bigger. This was huge.

Of course, there had been a practice run covering the decision. In early May Politico published a leaked draft opinion that overturned Roe v. Wade. It was the most important leaked story since the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Irin Carmon, a senior correspondent for New York magazine, said at the time, “I’m gobsmacked.” That was the reaction many had, in media and the public.

This led to weeks of speculation about whether the draft would change, whether the justices who voted to overturn the law would change their votes or if any other changes would be made.

Not many, evidently. Anyone hoping the decision would be different in any substantial way saw those hopes dashed Friday.

'We are about to become a divided country,' Pete Williams said on MSNBC

“The opinion is exactly what we thought it would be in early May,” Andy McCarthy said on Fox News.

Toobin, on CNN, agreed. “It looks almost identical to the leaked opinion,” he said.

Once reporters and experts had read through the opinion, reactions were about what you would expect.

“This is as devastating a ruling as can be imagined,” Neil Katyal said on MSNBC.

Meanwhile on Fox News McCarthy said, “It’s a great day for life. It’s a great day for the restoration of constitutional jurisprudence. It’s just a great day.”

Those are the polar opposite opinions that dominated the political and cultural landscapes.

Pete Williams, who does excellent work for NBC and MSNBC, put that into perspective: “We are about to become a divided country.”

Too late. Even before Friday's decision, it already was. Now, the divisions are drawn even more starkly.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: How Fox News, CNN covered the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade

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