During the 2004 presidential campaign, we frequently called the press out for writing stories in which the elephant in the room — the press itself — went unacknowledged. Somehow Candidate X has been reduced to a caricature, has come to be defined by a specious attack ad, a reporter would write (more or less), as though neither he himself nor his colleagues had any part in helping campaign-spun storylines take hold.

Today we find another small example of reporters suddenly becoming invisible to themselves. “[John] Roberts’ Hometown Draws Scrutiny,” reads the headline on Tom Coyne and Ashley M. Hehr’s Associated Press piece today.

“Draws scrutiny” from whom, you ask? Have pro- or anti-Roberts interest groups been digging around the nominee’s hometown for oppo research purposes? Are members of the Senate Judiciary Committee taking a hard look at Roberts’ childhood as they prepare for his confirmation hearings next month? If so, Coyne and Hehr don’t mention it. Indeed there is no evidence of anyone scrutinizing Long Beach, Indiana in Coyne and Hehr’s piece — apart from Coyne and Hehr themselves.

Thus, the headline should have been: “Roberts’ Hometown Draws Our Scrutiny.”

We’re not arguing that reporters shouldn’t take a look at where and how a Supreme Court nominee grew up as part of their reporting on the individual. In fact, many reporters did just that — there were plenty of descriptions of Long Beach and interviews with childhood friends in press reports in the days immediately after President Bush nominated Roberts. And though we’re not convinced it merits its own story, we’re not arguing that the fact that Roberts grew up in an “exclusive lakefront community … [that] once banned the sale of homes to nonwhites and Jews” and was “sheltered” from the racial tensions in nearby communities during that time is irrelevant to how he might approach cases on the Court (although everyone quoted in the piece — including the requisite “expert,” a professor “who has studied the Senate confirmation process” — tells Coyne and Hehr these things aren’t very relevant at all).

We’re just pointing out that reporters shouldn’t frame a story as if some unseen, unnamed entity or force is doing something that is actually being done by the reporters themselves.

Liz Cox Barrett

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.