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Katie Couric’s self-defeating effort to ‘protect’ Ruth Bader Ginsburg

And the many self-defeating efforts that came along with it

Katie Couric in 2019. (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Katie Couric has done plenty of people a major disservice by withholding contentious quotes from Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2016 in an effort to “protect” her — and then for some reason now revealing she did so. And she had plenty of self-defeating company.

The Daily Mail reported Wednesday that Couric, in her new book, cops to cutting Ginsburg’s full commentary disagreeing with Black athletes such as Colin Kaepernick who knelt during the national-anthem protests.

According to the report, Couric did so at least in part out of a desire to prevent blowback for the justice — she calls herself a “big RBG fan” — whom she regarded as having a blind spot on racial-justice issues and perhaps being too elderly to understand the question:

The final version of the story, which meant to promote a compilation of Ginsburg’s writings called, My Own Words, included her criticism of ‘stupid’ and ‘arrogant’ protesters.
But what was left out was arguably more inflammatory.
Ginsburg went on to say that such protests show a 'contempt for a government that has made it possible for their parents and grandparents to live a decent life.'
She said: ‘Which they probably could not have lived in the places they came from ... as they became older they realize that this was youthful folly. And that’s why education is important.’
Couric claims that she ‘lost a lot of sleep over this one’ and still wrestles with the decision she made.

As some have said, it is indeed arguable that the fuller quote was that much worse for Ginsburg; the ones published were quite contentious already and were covered extensively, followed by an apology from Ginsburg.

But that’s not really the point here. The point is this is a journalist reportedly saying she made a decision about publishing something by citing personal affection for and a desire to protect a subject she was covering. That’s not how it works. You publish what’s newsworthy and then let Ginsburg try to clean it up if she wants to.

(This, it bears noting, was a lengthy video. So it wasn’t a matter of just omitting a fuller quote from a news story.)

As for the notion that Ginsburg was too elderly to understand the question? This is someone whose job quite literally was to parse extremely complex things. If that’s what you truly think, your job might not be to state your opinion on the matter, but at least put the quotes out there and let people draw their own conclusions.

This kind of source protection is something plenty of the country will already suspect takes place in the media, and there’s their confirmation of it.

But also, consider the folly of feeling the need to protect Ginsburg — a Supreme Court justice! And in that regard, Couric had plenty of company on the political left.

For much of the tail end of her tenure on the Supreme Court, Ginsburg became almost a cult figure on the left — someone who was to be regarded with this kind of reverence and not questioned. Mother Jones’s Stephanie Mencimer wrote in 2018, two years before Ginsburg’s death, about how the rise of Ginsburg fan culture coincided with what had been increasing calls for her to retire from the bench.

It led plenty of people on the left to dance around (or even outright reject) the idea that maybe it would be a good idea for her to retire from the court when she could be replaced with a like-minded justice. Much of this was couched as citing the fact that Ginsburg would make the decision and that public pressure might be futile. But imagine exiting public life when your fame and the affection for you is at an all-time high?

Then Donald Trump won the presidency, Ginsburg died in 2020, and Trump was able to make the court more conservative than it has been in many decades.

This is a problem in politics that spans many public figures and ideologies. It’s the idea that certain people should be given more deference because of how good or even great they are. It’s as if they aren’t public servants to be scrutinized but rather totems that need insulation from criticism. Or, when they do misstep, it’s because there is a logical explanation beyond the one that they are fallible human beings or that maybe their views don’t fully align with that of their fans.

Ginsburg demonstrated her penchant for tripping over herself not just with her comments on Kaepernick but also with a controversy a few months earlier. She had broken with long-standing Supreme Court tradition by deriding then-candidate Trump — in terms generally reserved for cable-news pundits. (Ginsburg also apologized for this.)

Having lived through that earlier controversy and written about it, I can attest that the backlash from Ginsburg fans was swift and unsparing.

But especially given that, and even if you believe the best about Ginsburg, it’s newsworthy when she jumps headlong into another controversy by suggesting that protesting Black athletes had “contempt” for their government.

Protecting a person often comes at the expense of other things, including the public’s full picture of who that person is and, by extension, their ability to continue holding on to positions of power.

And, perhaps in some cases, it might even come at the expense of the reputation of the person who did the protecting.