Edith Someone, Michael and John: A Media Name Game

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 20, 2005

It was a big story, a huge story, a roll out the breaking-news logo and splashy graphics story. President Bush was about to nominate . . . was about to nominate . . . well, who, exactly?

For eight dizzying hours yesterday, media outlets plunged themselves into Supreme speculation, with anchors and reporters blathering on about the president's likely high court pick, until the collective chatter moved on to other potential nominees.

By 5 p.m., a shoot-from-the-lip environment ruled cable news. MSNBC's Dan Abrams: "Rumors are swirling, but the name that seems so far to have been leaked to just about everyone is 5th Circuit Judge Edith Brown Clement, a woman with conservative credentials." Clement was "at the top of the buzz right now," said commentator Craig Crawford.

But wait -- maybe it was the wrong Edith!

Fox News Channel's John Gibson: "We have heard a lot about Edith Clement. What about this Edith Jones?"

CNN's Suzanne Malveaux: "There's been a lot of speculation over Judge Edith Clement. We have been waved off of that as well. There are mixed reports whether she is going to be the candidate." Half an hour earlier, CNN had run a piece on Clement and Jones as "two front-runners."

At about 5:30, ABC reported on its Web site that Clement had gotten a call saying she wasn't the one -- perhaps the fastest flameout in Supreme Court history.

By choosing to unveil his nominee at 9 p.m., Bush not only threw the media establishment into a tizzy, he also broke the news right on deadline for East Coast newspapers and after the network newscasts. He cut through "the filter," as he calls the media, preventing -- or at least delaying -- journalists from researching long pieces picking apart his choice. The president also guaranteed himself a bigger audience than with a morning announcement (even if some would have preferred the scheduled "Big Brother 6" and "I Want to Be a Hilton").

The prime-time maneuver also neutralized the blogosphere, although liberals were convinced it was all a plot to knock Karl Rove and the CIA leak story off the front pages. One site, the Raw Story, posted the Democratic talking points against Clement.

For some, the nominee's actual identity didn't seem to matter. "Who the hell is Edith Clement? CNN seems to think she's the nominee," wrote Jackson Leslie at Grace & Civility. "She's probably a hardline conservative (look at who's doing the nominating)."

"Late idle speculation seems now to point away from Clement and toward Judge Edith Jones," wrote Josh Marshall on Talking Points Memo.

At 6:30 the network newscasts were cautious. "Clement was leading the shortlist," said CBS's Jim Stewart, who then listed other shortlisters such as Jones, Michael Luttig, Priscilla Owen and John Roberts (not the CBS anchor who introduced him and has himself been on a shortlist, to succeed Bob Schieffer).

"By late afternoon," said ABC's John Cochran, "the new buzz was about Michael Luttig, a tough conservative. Liberal groups were aghast."

"The names have narrowed," announced NBC's Brian Williams. David Gregory said it wouldn't be Clement, and Pete Williams said it could well be Luttig or Roberts.

There were still hours to go, and the TV talkers had to talk. Partisans debated whether whoever-it-was would be a good choice. There hadn't been this much feverish chatter since the journalists gathered at the Vatican weren't sure whether the rising chimney smoke was white or black.

At 7:20, MSNBC's Abrams asked: "Is it possible that Clement's name was thrown out there as a moderate pick to see if Democrats came out and denounced her?" Hmmm.

The journalists seemed oblivious to the fact that they had spent weeks speculating that Chief Justice William Rehnquist was about to retire, only to have him announce that, well, he wasn't, while all but ruling out that Sandra Day O'Connor would be stepping down. Even the odds on Bush's timing seemed to shift with each passing news cycle.

"White House Delay On Court Nominee Is Calculated Plan; Stretching Out Time for Selection Intended to Cut Into Senate Debate," said Sunday's Washington Post, suggesting an announcement in the last days of July. "GOP Allies Say Bush Is Close to Court Pick; Choice May Be Announced This Week," said Monday's Washington Post.

At 8 p.m. came the reliable leaks: Judge John G. Roberts Jr. (not the CBS guy) was Bush's choice. All talk of the Ediths and other nominees ceased as the media finally had their man (although Fox News Channel stuck with a taped "O'Reilly Factor" on the missing woman in Aruba and other subjects, with the Roberts headline at the bottom of the screen). The speculative sweepstakes was finally over -- at least until rumors swirl about the next court vacancy.

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