Hearings Tempest Downgraded to Topical Storm

Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco declared a state of emergency on Aug. 26, the statements of a White House official nothwithstanding.
Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco declared a state of emergency on Aug. 26, the statements of a White House official nothwithstanding. (By Robert Galbraith -- Reuters)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 12, 2005

Hurricane Katrina is having a gale-force impact on the John Roberts confirmation hearings.

When the Senate hearings begin this morning, the cable news networks plan to dip in and out after carrying some opening statements. The far more dramatic pictures of flood-ravaged New Orleans and Biloxi, Miss., will continue to dominate the on-air coverage, and the uproar over the administration's handling of the disaster has greatly eclipsed Roberts in the print media.

Had there been no hurricane, the battle over the next chief justice would be the media's top story instead of a sidebar. While PBS, Court TV and C-SPAN3 will carry the hearings live, arguments about strict constructionism and legal precedents will simply have trouble competing with a catastrophe that most likely killed thousands. Some newspapers last week led with the president's decision, after William Rehnquist's death, to name Roberts to succeed him instead of Sandra Day O'Connor, but that took a back seat to Katrina on the network newscasts and quickly faded.

Sean Rushton, executive director of the pro-administration Committee for Justice, says the diminished coverage is "a problem for the liberal groups and senators who want to turn this into a spectacle. . . . When the media have other serious things to focus their attention on, they tend to spend less time and less ink on the tit-for-tat, he said/she said elements that frequently accompany a confirmation hearing."

Nan Aron, president of the liberal Alliance for Justice, says a lack of live cable coverage would be "extremely disappointing" but that "there has been considerable press coverage of the nomination in past months. . . . While public attention might be focused on other issues, the senators are very ready for these hearings." She also says her group is seeking alternatives by "speaking to bloggers on a daily basis."

Roberts has been treated well in journalistic accounts, says a study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs. In the first 40 days after Roberts's nomination -- up until the hurricane -- 69 percent of the evaluations of him on the network evening newscasts were positive. Roberts drew 57 percent positive evaluations in the New York Times. He has fared considerably better than Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas did in their pre-hearing coverage, the group says.

A key factor in dampening coverage of the Roberts hearings is the apparent lack of suspense about the outcome. With most of the 55 Republican senators, and some Democratic ones, voicing support for the appellate judge, a media consensus formed early that he was a shoo-in. But even if the vote were a cliffhanger, the story would still have trouble competing with the worst natural disaster in American history.

Footnote : Sixty-five percent of those in a Pew Research Center poll say the media are doing an excellent or good job covering Katrina. Eighty-nine percent say television is a main source of news about the disaster, followed by newspapers (35 percent), the Internet (21) and radio (17). The TV breakdown is: CNN (31 percent), Fox News (22 percent), local news (19), ABC (14), NBC (12), MSNBC (9) and CBS (8).

Unreliable Source

The Washington Post, like many news organizations, says it is trying to crack down on the use of anonymous sources. But the paper allowed a "senior administration official" to spin the story of the slow response to Katrina -- with a claim that turned out to be false.

On Sept. 4, the paper cited the "senior Bush official" as saying that as of the day before, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco "still had not declared a state of emergency." As The Post noted in a correction, Blanco, a Democrat, had declared a state of emergency on Aug. 26.

Liberal bloggers have unloaded on The Post. Wrote Arianna Huffington: "Why were the Post reporters so willing to blindly accept the words of an administration official who obviously had a partisan agenda -- and to grant the official anonymity?"

Post National Editor Michael Abramowitz calls the incident "a bad mistake" that happened right on deadline. "We all feel bad about that," he says. "We should not have printed the information as background information, and it should have been checked. We fell down on the desk."

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