The Supreme Challenge: Zero Visuals Times 9

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 25, 2005

The John Roberts nomination has revived an age-old dilemma for television news: how to cover nine secluded lawyers in black robes.

"Supreme Court arguments and decisions are fascinating to a few of us and really pretty boring to most," says MSNBC's Dan Abrams.

"The Supreme Court deals overwhelmingly with abstractions, and ideas and abstractions are not easy to convey on television," says CNN's Jeff Toobin.

"The minutiae of it, how people interpret statutes, that's not the most exciting stuff," says Fox's Greta Van Susteren.

If three of cable's best legal commentators, all lawyers, struggle with the subject, imagine how difficult it is for all the other anchors, correspondents and producers.

The amount of airtime devoted to untangling court decisions has been dwarfed by the cases involving Martha Stewart, Michael Jackson and Kobe Bryant, not to mention wife killer Scott Peterson, runaway bride Jennifer Wilbanks and missing-in-Aruba Natalee Holloway. By contrast, major court rulings on medical marijuana, racially influenced jury selection and government seizure of private property tend to be one- or two-day stories at best.

Television reports on these high-court rulings were also eclipsed by all those speculative stories about William Rehnquist stepping down (he isn't) and whether President Bush would pick Edith Clement or some other judge besides Roberts for the Sandra Day O'Connor vacancy (he didn't).

Just as political reporters cover campaigns far more than governing, the Roberts selection provides the media with a clear story line -- whether the Senate will confirm the appeals court judge. But with no Clarence Thomas-style controversy to feast upon, the networks could quickly tire of examining the details of Roberts's record and judicial philosophy.

"He's distinguished himself in his career, but there's no novelty associated with him," Van Susteren says. "We've had white men who've gone to Harvard and been at the top of their class and are smart."

On Wednesday, the day after the Roberts announcement, Van Susteren, who has camped out in Aruba several times, did four Holloway segments on her "On the Record" program and one -- an interview with John McCain -- on the court vacancy.

"I see it as a lesson in how we collect evidence," says Van Susteren, whose ratings have soared since Holloway's disappearance in late May. "Far more people are going to be touched by trial courts and police investigations than by Supreme Court decisions. I would not be so arrogant to think that only the Supreme Court matters. More people now know about Aruban law than they ever did before."

The "Abrams Report" led with Holloway on Wednesday, did one segment on Roberts and then moved on to new allegations against the murderer of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford. Abrams says he wrestles with "balancing" such stories every day.

"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.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company