The only thing more stunning than the off-the-rails Republican badgering and constant interrupting of Ketanji Brown Jackson at her Supreme Court confirmation hearing on Wednesday was the utterly inaccurate and inapt media coverage. “Tense.” “Heated.” “Confrontational.” “Tough.” Was that really the proper way to describe the hearings?
From much of the mealy-mouthed coverage of the circus, one would have a hard time guessing that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) angrily interrupted Jackson over and over again and shouted over hapless Senate Judiciary Chairman Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) as he lamely pleaded, “at some point you have to follow the rules.” (Was he not responsible for enforcing those rules?)
Similarly, from the media descriptions, one might not have understood the extent of the nonstop bullying from Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and his disgusting accusation that Jackson, a mother of two and circuit court judge, did not think child pornography was a “bad thing.” And one might have never imagined that Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) plowed over the same debunked allegations about her being “soft” on child pornography defendants. Jackson, after hearing the same disingenuous questions repeatedly, eventually resorted to saying that she stood by her prior answers.
How is it that the first Black woman nominated to the Supreme Court was treated so shabbily? Let’s first dispense with the typical whataboutisms from Republicans. Justices Amy Coney Barrett and Brett M. Kavanaugh, during their confirmation hearings, were given the chance to answer questions without persistent interruptions. (And it was Kavanaugh who lost his cool, not the Democrats questioning him.)
Let’s also acknowledge the obvious: Cruz, Hawley and other Republicans operate as content providers for right-wing media, generating clips designed to upset and anger the MAGA base. They are competing to be the most aggressive in anticipation of possible presidential runs.
The rage machine exists because “normal” Republicans do not put an end to it. What if, for example, more than a couple Republicans denounced the mockery their colleagues made of a serious process? What if they acknowledged that Jackson is eminently qualified and voted for her?
It is not the fault of Republicans alone. Durbin failed to enforce the Senate Judiciary Committee’s rules, allowing members to constantly badger Jackson. While tough questioning is entirely appropriate, the obnoxious manner and utter irrelevance of topics (Cruz harped on a schoolbook on racism in an attempt to pull Jackson into an utterly inappropriate debate on critical race theory) suggested the judge was not entitled to the same level of courtesy and respect shown to other nominees.
Rather than intervene, Democrats on the committee went on with their prepared list of questions. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) made a strong objection, but outside the hearing room where most Americans would not hear it. “You had a Republican member who went way over the time allotted to him, ignored the rules of the committee, badgered the nominee, would not even let her answer the questions,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like that. I’ve been here 48 years.”
Not until Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), the only African American on the committee, spoke did Republicans get their deserved pushback. He excoriated Hawley for his misleading line of questioning, reading from a National Review column that deemed his allegations “meritless to the point of demagoguery.” To Jackson, he said, “You have sat with grit and grace" and stressed that her “joy” would not be taken away from her. “God has got you!” His sermon-like tribute brought tears to her eyes, a rare show of emotion on her part.
The media might be able to curtail such haranguing if they accurately described what had happened. For reasons that confound me, reporters often play down the extraordinarily obnoxious behavior of Republicans, instead casting it as the normal back-and-forth nominees encounter. The refusal to call out Republicans for departing the bounds of civilized conduct allows the MAGA crowd pleasers to escape the judgment of average people who might be offended by their conduct.
The media in particular fails to convey the visual image of angry White men screaming and interrupting a Black woman, who dares not show anger for fear of being labeled unprofessional or lacking the correct temperament. Combined with the insinuations about her “softness” on child pornography and the hysterics on critical race theory, the aggression barely masked the Republican outpouring of White grievance.
It behooves Republicans who do not approve of this travesty to speak up. Meanwhile, Democrats should use their majority position to put an end to such conduct (cut off Republicans’ microphones or conclude the hearing until they act appropriately), and the media should not provide camouflage for it. The refusal to afford a historic nominee with respect she deserves and to denounce baseless accusations speaks volumes about our collective failure, still, to reckon with the original sin of racism.