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The Supreme Challenge: Zero Visuals Times 9

"When it comes to the intricacies of the Endangered Species Act, or even the nuances surrounding something as explosive as abortion, it's hard to translate on TV," Abrams says. "And more important, it is hard to get people interested. The court very often tries only to evaluate the facts before it and not to rule on grand issues."

Toobin, a New Yorker contributor who is writing a book on the court, says it is a "shame" the justices don't allow cameras and release audiotapes of arguments only on rare occasions. Nor do the justices grant many interviews, even, in O'Connor's case, after announcing a retirement.

"The culture of the Supreme Court is so full of restraint and inaccessibility," he says. "The product that emerges from the Supreme Court is words on paper. . . . It's very difficult to illustrate the concept of separation of powers, or separation of church and state. Yes, we can show a photo of the Ten Commandments, but that doesn't convey much about what the justices are arguing about."

For a visual medium, the lack of pictures is crucial. "These are cloistered people," says Van Susteren. "Most people could stand behind any one of the nine at a movie theater and not know a Supreme Court justice is in front of them. Nobody knows these people."

And yet few would dispute that the biggest court rulings are far more important than a single missing woman or another celebrity in trouble. Still, how likely is it that the Roberts confirmation hearings -- the first such Senate showdown in the era of three cable news networks -- will draw gavel-to-gavel coverage for long disquisitions on "originalist" and "strict constructionist" philosophies?

If the battle turns bloody, which seems less likely than if Bush had picked a more incendiary nominee, the coverage will heat up. But when the first Monday in October rolls around, the justices will again be bit players on television news.

Too Personal?

Sen. Rick Santorum has accused the Philadelphia Inquirer of having "outed" one of his staffers.

The Pennsylvania Republican made the charge on Fox's "O'Reilly Factor" last week after the Inquirer published a story headlined: "A Top Santorum Aide Is Gay."

Why on earth would the Inquirer run such a piece? Reporter Steve Goldstein, who was following up a story about the aide's sexuality on a gay Web site, noted that Santorum "has been an outspoken opponent of homosexual rights and a leading proponent of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage." But does that mean his staffers' private lives are fair game?

Inquirer Editor Amanda Bennett calls the outing charge "nonsense." She says the aide (whose name is not being mentioned by this column) told the Web site that he was an "out gay man who completely supports the senator." The site called him a "self-loather."

"So we didn't out him," Bennett says. "It is being talked about in the context of one of the hottest-contested races in the country." She says that perceived conflicts between a politician's positions and personal associations -- such as Vice President Cheney and his daughter, Mary, who is gay -- are a common subject of news stories.

The staffer, who says he's received death threats, notes that Santorum and his friends knew about his sexuality, but not everyone did. He questions why whom he chooses to sleep with should be thrust into the news in a way that heterosexual aides would not face.

Bennett responds that "lots of people are upset by lots of things we write." Santorum, who once said that legalization of gay sex could lead to bigamy and incest, told the paper it is "entirely unacceptable that my staffers' personal lives are considered fair game by partisans."

Alter Ego

"After my 4 1/2 years covering the Bush White House, I couldn't imagine the name 'John Roberts' and the phrase 'widely admired for his intellect, his sound judgment and his personal decency' being used in the same time zone, let alone the same sentence." -- CBS's John Roberts , on the strangeness of covering the Supreme Court nomination of John Roberts.

Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program.


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