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Amid Obamacare confusion, 81-year-old Supreme Court blogger shines

John D. Sutter, CNN
Members of the media camped outside the Supreme Court on Monday for a different ruling.
Members of the media camped outside the Supreme Court on Monday for a different ruling.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Blogger Lyle Denniston gains a degree of Internet celebrity on Thursday
  • The 81-year-old has been writing about the Supreme Court for more than five decades
  • The Twitter meme #teamlyle was started by his fans
  • Denniston paid a tutor to teach him how to use the Internet in the late 1990s

(CNN) -- Supreme Court bloggers usually don't have fan clubs.

But 81-year-old, twice-retired blogger Lyle Denniston became an Internet celebrity of sorts on Thursday amid the confusion about the Supreme Court's ruling on President Obama's health care law.

Moments after the ruling was handed down, both CNN and Fox News briefly and incorrectly reported the Supreme Court had struck down a central provision of Obama's health care law.

CNN corrected the error.

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Romney's health care response
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Denniston's online publication, SCOTUSBlog, which stands for Supreme Court of the United States, however, got the news right, and published to Twitter only a minute after CNN did.

"#SCOTUS upholds #ACA individual mandate," said the blog's Twitter feed.

More than 2,900 people retweeted that post.

"I think it took us maybe three minutes to figure out exactly what the court had done," which was to uphold a mandate on buying insurance, Denniston said by phone on Thursday afternoon.

During that interview, fans approached Denniston asking him to take pictures with them while wearing T-shirts that say things like "#TeamLyle" -- an Internet meme started by fans of his fast-paced reporting. He doesn't expect the attention to last.

"In the digital and Internet age, I know that celebrity is likely to be prolonged for less than the usual 15 minutes," he said. "Once today and maybe tomorrow is over, I think the phone at my house and my cell phone are going to stop ringing from people who want to talk to me. Celebrity, if that's what it is, is really fleeting ... "

Denniston and the SCOTUSBlog, which was founded by a husband-wife pair of attorneys in 2002, haven't exactly become household names, at least until this week.

Their rise to prominence comes at a time when the Internet's instant news cycles are colliding with complicated stories like Supreme Court rulings. Plenty of news organizations leaned, in part, on SCOTUSBlog's fast, furious coverage of Thursday's ruling as a way to supplement their own live blogging of the event.

Twitter become so flooded with chatter about the SCOTUSBlog that Slate's Farhad Manjoo wrote, "Twitter is basically a mirror of Scotusblog now." White House spokesman Jay Carney reportedly said in a news conference Wednesday that he would rely on TV news and the SCOTUSBlog to see what the court had decided in the landmark health care case.

Editors at the blog anticipated the attention.

"Here we go. 4 more web servers. 5 bloggers. 2 tech teams. $25k for 20 mins," the group wrote on its Twitter feed, @SCOTUSBlog, which had more than 42,000 followers as of about 1 p.m. ET on Thursday. "Probably more traffic today than in SB's first 5 years, combined. So grateful; a little scared," the group said on Twitter before the decision was handed down.

The site has become known for its "plain English" versions of court news and for its expertise. Denniston, the veteran blogger, isn't an attorney but he joked in a 2007 interview with C-SPAN that he has "always indulged the arrogance of saying the only time I've ever been in a law school was to teach." The blog's co-founders, Tom Goldstein and Amy Howe, are both lawyers. Goldstein teaches Supreme Court litigation at Stanford and Harvard and has argued 25 cases in front of the Supreme Court, according to his online bio. Howe has argued two cases in front of the court.

Denniston started his day by posting to the network's live blog:

"Good morning from a slightly zoo-like, but still surprisingly civil, press room at the Court."

Three minutes later, a reader asked if he thought there would be a "clear majority" opinion.

"I am still hugging the trunk of the tree -- solidly avoiding any predicton (sic)," he wrote. "No limbs for a traditional journalist."

Denniston, who has covered the Supreme Court for 52 years and has twice gone into retirement, doesn't relish the attention. In fact, it bothers him a bit.

"I'm afraid I will be accused of false modesty if I say what I really feel, which is that in all of my years of journalism, I had never wanted to be part of the story. I would hope that when I say that people will take me sincerely. I grew up in journalism believing that the story was the story -- and not the messenger," he said. "And what this kind of celebrity, as you put it, does is to lift the reporter out from behind the screen of objectivity and make the reporter the story. And that's troubling to me."

That kind of comment probably only will make fans adore him more.

"We are grateful to you! Thank you for everything. #TeamLyle," one wrote on Twitter.

"Because it is important to say, right now: #TEAMLYLE!" said another.

For a blogger, Denniston has an unusual history with technology.

"I don't do the Twitter thing very much," he said. "I used to do it a bit. I'm usually so verbose in my writing -- 140 characters isn't nearly enough for me to even clear my throat."

In 1998 or 1999, he paid a tutor to teach him how to use the Internet. He often calls in information -- even entire stories -- to the blog's editors by phone, as he did with Thursday's news.

Asked what keeps him going at age 81, he gave a personal answer.

"My father retired and it was virtually the end of his life," he said. "He really declined after that. A long time ago I made up my mind that I would find something active to do, even though I left newspapering and sort of thought I was retired. ... It is just so immensely fascinating to me and I do find that having a prolonged institutional memory about the court and about the law and particularly about the Constitution makes it even fun for me to do. And it allows me to be an even greater resource for my readers."

Just in case you're thinking the Internet has gotten way too serious -- court reporter as meme? -- don't fret. There's of course another website that chose to tell the story of the court's decision in cat photos.

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