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Fighting To Win the Sotomayor Spin War

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Less than an hour after President Obama announced his Supreme Court nominee yesterday, two "senior administration officials" began holding forth for reporters on the virtues of Sonia Sotomayor.

Several journalists in the Roosevelt Room briefing protested, saying there was no reason the officials couldn't speak on the record. One of the briefers, senior adviser David Axelrod, would be making a similar case on Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and PBS within hours. But Press Secretary Robert Gibbs stood his ground: No names could be attached.

The effort to buttress the appeals court judge's nomination from behind a curtain of anonymity highlights the administration's determination to frame the narrative, even as cable news pundits and bloggers were alternately praising and criticizing Sotomayor.

"We protest in the strongest terms the Obama administration's frequent use of briefings done on a background basis . . . especially when the same officials briefing often appear ubiquitously on television shows with similar information," said Jennifer Loven of the Associated Press, president of the White House Correspondents' Association. She said this was particularly true on a Supreme Court nomination, "when the issue does not involve sensitive material such as national security information."

Asked for a response, Gibbs said it was "interesting" that the AP had no qualms about relying on unnamed "officials" in breaking the news of Sotomayor's nomination. "I'm not sure today is the day I'd make that argument," he said.

While the Obama administration is hardly the first to use background briefings, journalists have complained about the ground rules several times this year. Reporters for the AP, New York Times and Washington Post, among others, objected at yesterday's session for print journalists. But there was no controversy at a separate briefing for television correspondents, who tend to care less about how information is conveyed when the subjects are not on camera.

The White House briefers -- Axelrod and Ron Klain, Vice President Biden's chief of staff -- found themselves discussing questions about Sotomayor's temperament, raised by sources -- also unnamed -- in a widely quoted New Republic piece. The briefers said Sotomayor was "unapologetic" about being "tough" on unprepared lawyers and that the high court was not a place for "shrinking violets." While they provided useful tidbits on the selection process, journalists say, they also echoed arguments that Obama had already made before the cameras.

The May 4 article in the New Republic -- "The Case Against Sotomayor" -- is by Jeffrey Rosen, a law professor at George Washington University and the liberal magazine's legal affairs editor. "I deeply regret the headline," Rosen said yesterday. "I didn't see it. It didn't represent the intent of the piece."

In the article, Rosen quoted one former appellate clerk as saying that Sotomayor is "not that smart and kind of a bully on the bench."

Rosen said it is "impossible" to get candid on-the-record comments from lawyers and clerks who have to deal with a sitting judge and that his sources were Democrats who wanted the most effective liberal nominee. He said he is "disappointed" that conservatives are using the article as an argument against confirmation.

A media debate over Sotomayor erupted immediately after the AP reported her selection at 8:25 a.m., nearly two hours before Obama's announcement. There had been earlier skirmishes because Sotomayor was high on every media organization's list of possible appointees, unlike in some previous instances where the nominee -- Harriet Miers, for instance -- came as a surprise.

Before word leaked yesterday, Karl Rove, who helped vet judicial nominees in the Bush White House, said on Fox that Sotomayor is an "unabashed liberal." Once the selection was confirmed, Rove said she "will not be a consensus leader" and "is not liked by her colleagues."

On MSNBC, Mark Whitaker, NBC's Washington bureau chief, said Sotomayor has a "very compelling life story" that will be "very hard . . . for the Republicans to attack." And CNN's Jeffrey Toobin said that "she doesn't look like a liberal firebrand."

As the day wore on, Fox raised criticisms of Sotomayor more frequently than its cable rivals. The network played a YouTube video, circulating in recent weeks, in which Sotomayor said at a 2005 conference that the "Court of Appeals is where policy is made. I know this is on tape and I shouldn't say that," adding that she was not "promoting" such an activist approach.

Fox also kept returning to a 2001 speech in which Sotomayor said, "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experience would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life." Anchor Megyn Kelly said: "That sounds to a lot of people like reverse racism."

Some critics say Sotomayor's Hispanic heritage and modest background should play no role in judging her fitness for the high court. But after Sotomayor spoke of being raised by a single mother in the South Bronx, MSNBC's Chris Matthews said: "I would hate to be a senator on the Judiciary Committee who tried to give that person a hard time." CNN's Toobin declared: "That was the face of the new America." Fox's Brit Hume said a person with a "compelling personal story" had an advantage "because the public in America loves to see people who are in disadvantaged groups get ahead."

One hint that the coming media melodrama may lack tension: No television commentator predicted that Sotomayor would be defeated.

Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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