Misjudging Sotomayor Coverage

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Misjudging Sotomayor Coverage

Not much of a case for left-wing media bias

Writing about Barack Obama's nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, Politico's Mike Allen (5/27/09) declared:

The media's left-of-center bias is rarely more apparent than during court fights. The coverage running up to the pick was slanted heavily toward the notion of how "pragmatic" Obama's legal views are and how unlikely he was to pick a liberal.

Coverage of Supreme Court fights is one of the best illustrations of corporate media's supposed lean to the left? Only three of the current justices had what could be described as a "fight" over their confirmation: Clarence Thomas (confirmed by a vote of 52-48), John Roberts (78-22) and Samuel Alito (58-42); all the others were confirmed with less than 10 percent of the Senate voting against them.

Despite the allegations of sexual harassment that were leveled against Thomas during his confirmation hearings, media coverage at the time depicted him as highly credible in his denials (Extra!, Special Issue 1992), and generally treated the question of whom to believe as impossible to answer.

Roberts got intensely favorable coverage from corporate media, to the point where Newsweek was denouncing as "conspiracy theories" accurate characterizations of Roberts' record (FAIR Action Alert, 8/2/05). When the pro-choice group NARAL pointed out that Roberts had filed a brief in support of an abortion clinic blockader who had previously been convicted of bombing, this was widely denounced by news outlets as an out-of-bounds attack (Extra!, 11-12/05); can anyone seriously imagine establishment pundits chiding right-wing activists for bringing up legal work Sonia Sotomayor had done on behalf of bombmakers, as if even mentioning such an association were patently unfair?

With Alito as well, corporate media tended to treat his unflappable demeanor as more important than his legal views, giving him generally high marks for his confirmation performance (CounterSpin, 1/20/06).

The only Supreme Court nominee to be voted down by the Senate in recent times was Robert Bork, in 1987 (see sidebar); corporate media have in the subsequent decades created an entirely inaccurate mythology about Bork's unfair treatment (FAIR Media Advisory, 7/21/05; Extra! Update, 4/99). (Two nominees withdrew shortly after being nominated-Douglas Ginsburg in 1987 after NPR revealed that he had smoked marijuana, and Harriet Miers in 2005 amidst complaints, largely from the right, that she was underqualified-Huffington Post, 10/5/05.)

According to Allen, it's during such episodes that corporate media's left-leaning bias is most apparent-and he backed up this claim with the assertion that coverage treated the unlikelihood that Obama would nominate a liberal as a good thing. What's actually apparent is that charges of left-wing media bias never need to be accompanied by actual evidence.

This is true when it comes to charges against judges as well as media. A New York Times piece (5/29/09) on Sotomayor's work with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund was a good example of this principle.

The bulk of the story described various cases that the PRLDEF took on while Sotomayor was involved with it, which was interesting enough. But in making the case for the importance of their front-page story, reporters Raymond Hernandez and David W. Chen wrote: Ms. Sotomayor's involvement with the defense fund has so far received scant attention. But her critics, including some Republican senators who will vote on her nomination, have questioned whether she has let her ethnicity, life experiences and public advocacy creep into her decisions as a judge. It seems inevitable, then, that her tenure with the defense fund will be scrutinized during her confirmation hearings.

Has Sotomayor let her "ethnicity...creep into her decisions"? It's hard to recall anyone asking that about Roberts or Bork. But if you take a look at Sotomayor's actual judicial record, as the SCOTUS Blog did (5/15/09), one thing that leaps out is that she frequently comes down in rulings against the side that she would presumably sympathize with politically-for the "global gag rule," a racist cop and tobacco companies, for instance, and against a disabled black woman and African-American air travelers. A subsequent SCOTUS Blog survey, published the same day as the Times piece, looked at every single race-related case Sotomayor decided on while on the court of appeals; of those 96 cases, she agreed with the claim of discrimination only 10 times (nine of which were unanimous rulings). Either Sotomayor does have the ability to put aside her personal opinions when making a judgment, in other words, or she's a good deal more right-wing than most people believe.

But the lengthy article never allowed anyone to make the case that Sotomayor's decisions do not in fact suffer from creeping Latinoism. Instead, after describing her involvement with the PRLDEF, Hernandez and Chen described a single judicial case that Sotomayor ruled on-Ricci, in which she was one of three appeals court judges that upheld a ruling against a white firefighter's discrimination claim-and then concluded by quoting a right-wing judicial activist: Mr. Levey said that the employment discrimination case filed by the defense fund on behalf of Hispanic police officers raised questions about Judge Sotomayor's credibility in the New Haven case. "It adds to the conviction that this was not accidental, and that she had a very specific agenda here."

In short, the New York Times framed its look at Sotomayor's involvement in Puerto Rican legal affairs as a question of whether such involvement will make her a bad judge, and it allowed no one to offer the case to the contrary. Is that the kind of coverage that Politico thinks makes left-wing bias so apparent?

Or perhaps corporate media's leftism was betrayed by an Associated Press story headlined "Debate Over Who Sotomayor Is a Sensitive One" (5/29/09), which began with reporter Sharon Theimer taking the nominee to task for only starting out in poverty:

There are two sides to Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor: a Latina from a blue-collar family and a wealthy member of America's power elite.

The White House portrays Sotomayor as a living image of the American dream, though its telling of the rags-to-riches story emphasizes the rags, a more politically appealing narrative, and plays down the riches.

Yes, somehow the White House picked Sotomayor despite the fact that she is no longer poor-and still pretended that she was the "living image of the American dream," which as we all know is to remain poor one's entire life. (It's actually rather hard to be an impoverished federal judge, since their salaries start at $169,000 a year.)

The AP discovered new layers of Sotomayor's hypocrisy, writing: "On ethnicity, Sotomayor herself has recognized-and contributed to-the dichotomy. She proudly highlights her Puerto Rican roots but hasn't always liked it when others have." The article spelled out this rather confusing charge:

Years ago, during a recruiting dinner in law school at Yale, Sotomayor objected when a law firm partner asked whether she would have been admitted to the school if she weren't Puerto Rican, and whether law firms did a disservice by hiring minority students the firms know are unqualified and will ultimately be fired.

So she's proud of being Puerto Rican, and yet she still takes offense at the notion that she couldn't have gotten into Yale if she weren't? Clearly, in the "left-of-center" corporate media, accusations that your ethnicity might mean you're unqualified for your job are only to be expected.

[See also the sidebar to this piece, Sotomayor vs. Bork: NYT by the Numbers]

Jim Naureckas

Jim Naureckas is editor of EXTRA! Magazine at FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting). He is the co-author of Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website.

Peter Hart

Peter Hart is the activism director at FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting). He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra, and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly" (Seven Stories Press, 2003).

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