By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 20, 2009
Thirty years from now, when today's hot headlines are a distant memory, we may well be debating the impact of Sonia Sotomayor as the Supreme Court's first Hispanic justice.
But while her confirmation hearings drew plenty of coverage last week, the level of media excitement hardly matched that surrounding Mark Sanford's Argentine affair, Sarah Palin's Alaskan exit or Michael Jackson's untimely departure.
Sure, the dry legal debate over a judicial nominee is never going to be as exciting as a sex scandal, surprise resignation or celebrity death. But are news organizations increasingly losing sight of what's important, as opposed to what gets tongues wagging? Or -- let's be blunt -- are these Senate hearings increasingly empty exercises?
The whole affair lacked a key element -- suspense -- as Republicans quickly conceded the judge was a lock for confirmation. There was no hint of personal impropriety. The focus has been squarely on a few Sotomayor rulings and off-the-bench comments, particularly her clumsy "wise Latina" remark.
Such hearings are rarely great theater. The first day featured five hours of senatorial bloviation before Sotomayor got to read a short statement. The next two days were filled with substantive but repetitive questioning and evasive answers, prompting the cable networks to keep cutting away to their pundit panels. Detailed discussions of "disparate impact" and "stare decisis" are not big ratings-grabbers, and indeed, the Nielsen numbers dropped.
Judicial nominees routinely engage in a grand Kabuki dance in which they decline to offer their views on most cases. In 1986, when I covered the confirmation hearings of Antonin Scalia, he said he had "no agenda" other than to be a good judge and would not venture an opinion on Roe v. Wade. Scalia, who was confirmed 98 to 0, went on to become perhaps the court's most aggressively conservative member. Nominees from the left and right vow to be impartial umpires but then vote pretty much as everyone expected.
Washington news occupied a larger niche in those pre-blogging days when newspapers were more important and Fox News and MSNBC did not exist. The 1987 brawl over Robert Bork's nomination was fought squarely on ideological grounds, and there was genuine drama over whether the Democrats could defeat him.
The most riveting Supreme Court battle of modern times was, of course, the Clarence Thomas hearings, which wound up being about alleged sexual remarks more than judicial philosophy. By contrast, the hearings on Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, John Roberts and Samuel Alito were relative snoozefests.
These days, "serious" news has to compete with tabloid fare and TMZ-fueled controversies. The media beast is a fickle creature, lurching from Octomom to Jon and Kate to a Drudge-promoted photo that misleadingly suggested President Obama was ogling a Brazilian teenager at the G-8 conference -- which undoubtedly got more online hits than anything that actually happened at the G-8. (The Post, joining the pack, ran the picture with a snarky caption.)
And yet it would be silly to deny that the media's most recent fixations involve rich tapestries laden with colorful threads.
The Sanford saga is more than a South Carolina governor confessing to an extramarital affair after a ludicrous cover story about hiking the Appalachian Trail. The romantic e-mails between Sanford and his Argentine mistress, and his public agonizing over his "soul mate," were captivating because they didn't follow the sterile script of a philandering politician seeking his mate's forgiveness. The governor, granting one interview after the next, seemed intent on playing out his infidelity drama in public. And Jenny Sanford sparked a parallel discussion about the role of the wronged spouse by repeatedly criticizing her husband's conduct.
Palin has been one of America's most polarizing politicians almost from the day John McCain tapped her as his running mate. Some of the early criticism about whether she could handle five kids and the vice presidency was sexist; the campaign largely shielded her from the press, except for a couple of less-than-successful TV interviews, and when it was over, journalists shamefully quoted unnamed McCain aides as calling her a head case. Palin delights in denouncing the media, even as she goes fishing with network correspondents and appears on Time's cover. So her abrupt and oddly reasoned resignation was obviously going to be big news.
The unexpected death of one of the world's most famous entertainers was undeniably a bombshell. But Jackson's passing touched off a cable news marathon that explored his dark side (allegations of child molestation); racial identity (a black cultural figure with bleached skin, white wives and fair-skinned kids); and history of weirdness (dangling a baby over a balcony). Such questions faded as the media-amplified praise grew louder and more insistent, replaced periodically by chatter about Jackson's will, his use of drugs and his cause of death. This last area of inquiry was boosted by unverified accusations of foul play from Jackson's father -- in an ABC interview granted after the network paid $200,000 for a reality-show pilot involving the very same Joe Jackson.
Walter Cronkite's death late Friday sparked a briefer cable news marathon, but by Saturday he was not even in the top 10 "trending topics" on Twitter. Cronkite died at 92, nearly three decades after he signed off as the CBS anchor, and so was a distant historical figure to at least half the country.
Sotomayor's rise from a Bronx public housing project was a stirring story at first, but that narrative quickly ran its course. The "wise Latina" remark had its YouTube moment. With no new revelations to stoke public interest, last week's hearings were mundane enough that, on the first day of questioning, ABC's "World News" led instead with a Southwest plane that developed a hole in its fuselage in flight, and "Nightline" led with the late King of Pop, as it had on 10 of the previous 13 nights. There was undoubtedly more interest in the new Harry Potter movie than the likely next Supreme Court justice.
In the Twitter age, we all hear the din of overlapping conversations. Journalists can hardly grab people by the lapels and demand that they pay attention to some long-winded political ritual. When it comes to mesmerizing the media marketplace, Sonia Sotomayor is no Sarah Palin.