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.
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."
"After my 41/2 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.
All right, here's how I concluded that Roberts, while not quite as sure a thing as Lance Armstrong, is in very strong shape.
A New York Times | http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/24/politics/politicsspecial1/24confirm.html? piece on Ed Gillespie in his war room shows there's not much of a war going on:
Ed Gillespie, the White House commando in charge of the selling of Judge John G. Roberts for a seat on the highest court in the land, was settled into his temporary West Wing office on Friday with a ready army and almost no enemy to fight.
Some war room: the telephones were silent, Fox News was unwatched in a corner, no aides bustled in and out. With Congress gone for another sultry weekend, it was just Mr. Gillespie and his sidekick, Steve Schmidt, a top adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney who is moonlighting as the communications director in the Roberts sales campaign.
A Washington Post | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/07/23/AR2005072301188.html profile leads off with a close colleague saying he never talks about politics: "If his first 50 years on Earth were a prelude to an ideological crusade, he's done an excellent job of disguising it."
The Philadelphia Inquirer | http://www.philly.com/mld/inquirer/news/nation/12207028.htm concludes: "A look at Roberts' 2003 testimony and his written opinions as a judge suggests he embraces a conservative judicial restraint that evokes an approach that has largely been absent from the Supreme Court for decades."
Ditto this Los Angeles Times | http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-roberts25jul25,0,178546.story?coll=la-home-headlines piece: "for a young conservative, bright but conforming, modest and deeply religious, a workaholic content with weekends in the office, the only son of a steel plant manager, raised on the shore of Lake Michigan, John G. Roberts Jr. had arrived."Here's the skirmish shaping up, as the Boston Globe | http://www.boston.com/news/nation/washington/articles/2005/07/25/clash_likely_over_roberts_documents/ notes:
"The White House signaled yesterday that it does not intend to release documents produced by Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. during his service in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations, setting up a clash with Democrats who are insisting that internal memos prepared by Roberts be released for lawmakers to review."
The most controversial thing about Roberts seems to be his wife, Jane, having belonged to Feminists for Life, as these NYT | http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/23/politics/politicsspecial1/23jane.html, WP | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/07/21/AR2005072102500.html and LAT | http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-wife21jul21,0,4513105.story?coll=la-home-headlines pieces detail. (Wait a minute, isn't he the nominee?)
Only Newsweek goes with a Roberts cover; Time and U.S. News take a pass.
Rich Lowry | http://nationalreview.com/lowry/lowry200507220829.asp sees the Dems in disarray on Roberts:
"How do you define 'flummoxed'? That would be Sen. Chuck Schumer. Or 'flailing'? That would be Sen. Ted Kennedy. Or 'desperate'? That would be the array of left-wing activist groups from People For the American Way to MoveOn.org. This cadre of desperately flailing flummoxed anti-Bushies has been brought to their state of extreme futility by the nomination to the Supreme Court of John Roberts, the un-Borkable...
"One focus is his dissent in a 2003 case involving the Endangered Species Act. He thought a three-judge panel of the D.C. court erred in upholding the constitutionality of the law under the Commerce Clause. Putting aside the details of the arroyo southwestern toad involved in the case, Roberts thought the panel's decision ignored recent federalism-friendly Supreme Court decisions in Lopez and Morrison that limited the reach of the Commerce Clause. Those decisions had been joined by Sandra Day O'Connor. Remember her? She's the retiring justice who has been universally praised by Democrats.
"Even Kennedy argued that O'Connor represented 'the mainstream of conservative judicial thinking,' and said 'that is what the American people are expecting' in her replacement. But that was all of three weeks ago. Now, Kennedy regards Roberts' agreement with O'Connor on the Commerce Clause with horror."
Jeff Jarvis | http://www.buzzmachine.com says the whole thing is practically non-news:
"What's most impressive about the nomination of John Roberts is how the White House made it into the unstory.
"I don't see the blogs going crazy. There isn't much to say. Atrios very briefly had a moment's hope that Roberts had a connection to Iran-Contra. Oops. Wrong John Roberts. Nevermind.
"We're not hearing scandals or scandalous opinions from the guy. We're not hearing any particular protest that he's the whitest white guy they could find.
"The TV pundits and blathershows and the columnists aren't using their scarce ink and airtime to probe every Roberts angle because there aren't any. . . .
"Kos et al were already moving on -- like the good political strategists they are -- to figure out how to find victory in defeat. And they're back to hammering the Rove story."
As Bill Kristol notes, Brad Joondeph, on the liberal Think Progress | http://court.thinkprogress.org/author/brad-joondeph/ site, recalls being a summer associate 12 years ago at Roberts's firm, Hogan & Hartson:
"He could not have been nicer, more gracious, more encouraging. He offered mentoring advice to a snot-nosed, 24-year-old law student as if it were the most important part of his job."
Back at Stanford, Joondeph sent Roberts "a rather presumptuous and self-important critique" of a Supreme Court ruling, disagreeing with Roberts's argument as deputy solicitor general: "A few weeks later, I received a two-page letter in response. Roberts wrote that the note was well researched and well written. (I was thrilled at the time, but I would now strongly disagree.) But he also offered a thoughtful critique of my analysis that was several paragraphs in length. This was more feedback than I had received from my professors in law school."
The following strikes me as an overheated interpretation of some mostly tongue-in-cheek posts, but Charmaine Yoest at Reasoned Audacity | http://www.charmaineyoest.com/archives/2005/07/whos_homophobic.html concludes:
"Some on the Left have started a 'maybe he's gay' whisper campaign against John Roberts.
"It started with Manhattan Offender | http://manhattanoffender.typepad.com/manhattanoffender/2005/07/how_gay_is_this.html in a post asking 'How Gay is This Guy?' and then he quoted Wikipedia's entry for Judge Roberts. He zeroed in on some really damning evidence from Roberts' youthful past: the all-male boarding school, studying French and Latin (gasp!), being a wrestler and, oh the horror, participating in choir and drama.
"So, it was only one silly post...Wonkette | http://www.wonkette.com/politics/john-g-roberts/index.php#looking-back-at-roberts-113654 picked up the ball and ran with it:
"We're not making any conclusions here -- we wouldn't want to comment on an ongoing investigation -- we're just laying out the facts: He is a graduate of an all-boys Catholic school where, as a member of the wrestling team, he regularly grappled with other sweaty, repressed boys. That is when he wasn't the drama club playing Peppermint Patty, for God's sake.
"What's that about Peppermint Patty?!? Yes, well, that's where the story starts to get interesting. That's a reference to a point raised in the New York Times | http://althouse.blogspot.com/2005/07/i-read-same-nyt-piece-wonkette-did.html profile of Roberts, 'Court Nominee's Life Is Rooted in Faith and Respect for Law,' written by Todd Purdum, Jodi Wilgoren and Pam Belluck. In the midst of a very lengthy profile, Purdum, et.al. just throw in the little factoid that Roberts' yearbook records that 'he played Peppermint Patty in the production of 'You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown.' Did I mention that this was when he was in high school?
"So maybe that snarky little bit is just there for a little color? Ann Althouse | http://althouse.blogspot.com/2005/07/i-read-same-nyt-piece-wonkette-did.html has picked up the story and she thinks otherwise:
"I do think the NYT piece was subtly constructed to plant this idea. Just look at the series of photographs they chose: young John in plaid pants, young John with his boys' school pals, young John in a wrestling suit with his fellow wrestlers, John with footballers, and -- the final pic -- John smiling in an all-male wedding photograph.
"I think she might have a point."
John Carroll, who is stepping down as editor of the Tribune Company-owned LAT, was asked by Columbia Journalism Review | http://cjrdaily.org: "Is it possible for a great newspaper to thrive under the umbrella of a publicly traded corporation?
"JC: This is one of the penetrating questions about our business. Can corporations that are not family-controlled produce excellent newspapers? The returns aren't in, but it's not looking good. Newspaper-owning corporations -- and I mean all of them, not just my own employer -- have an unwritten pact with Wall Street that requires unsustainably high profit levels. Each year, newspapers shed reporters, editors, photographers, designers and newshole. Each year, readers get less. Each year many of those readers turn elsewhere for their news. . . .
"It's important that the Los Angeles Times remain firmly in the top tier -- important to the community, important to journalism, important to the national conversation. There's no other newsgathering engine this formidable west of Manhattan. The nation's voice should not be monopolized by New York and Washington."
A television host endorsing violence? At TPM Cafe, Todd Gitlin | http://www.tpmcafe.com/section/media has the transcript:
"HOST: Actually, I am objectively pro-France. You know, France blew up the Rainbow Warrior, that Greenpeace ship in Auckland Harbor in the `80s. And I've always respected them. . . .
"GUEST: That made you like them?
"HOST: Yes. Yes. It won me over.
"The host in question is the much-sought-after Tucker Carlson. The show is the much advertised 'The Situation.' The network is MSNBC. No wonder they worked so hard to bring him over from CNN and PBS, attitude, bowtie, and all.I guess state terrorism is OK when you're blowing up some wussy peacenik green guys' boat and killing the photographer on board. Who can make this stuff up?"