Reporting Kagan’s sense of humor is not bad reporting. It’s solid observation—and, indeed, where reporters wrote of how it played in to currying favor with the Committee, it is rather important. It is an understandable focus too, considering Kagan remains something of a blank slate to readers and viewers. With a few jokes, the woman some have labeled a cipher—the bland and unrevealing answers on matters of substance, the frustratingly short paper trail—is suddenly a living, breathing, laughing, jesting human being.
But the almost excessive interest in Kagan’s sense of humor—every joke recorded, ledes detailing her witty exchanges—not just in blogs but in mainstream outlets, might be indicative of something Marx was getting at with the Sotomayor piece. There just isn’t a lot to cover at these hearings anymore.
We might be devoting too many minutes, pages, and people to a spectacle so predictable that a moment’s surprise levity is the most interesting thing to report. As Marx writes, resources could be better directed at covering stories others are ignoring. In July of last year, he suggested the secret C.I.A. program to kill al Qaeda leaders being reported on at the time, or the then-latest on health care reform. Today, reporters moved from their beats to keep watch of the hearings could be further unpacking the employment crisis, or at least explaining to us why it’s so damn hot outside, leaving detailed Kagan blow-by-blows to a (more) select few.
For them, the predictability of the proceedings should be a challenge to mine for fresher angles. If we’re going to cover these things, let’s do a good job—if not for the sake of readers and viewers tiring of the Thurgood Marshall-Harvard Law School-Jewish Christmas dance, then certainly to differentiate your reports from those “Kagan-is-a-funny-shoo-in” pieces clogging Google News search results on the nominee.
Some have certainly taken different approaches. Reporters analyzing the implications of Kagan’s having to sit out several cases in her first year on the bench (due to her tenure as Solicitor General) are forward-looking and fresh—as early as late May, NPR offered solid work on this. Elsewhere, some keen local outlets are focusing on how their own senators are faring in the hearings—as in this piece on notably aggressive interlocutor Arlen Specter in the Philadelphia Inquirer, or the Boston Globe’s look at how Scott Brown’s vote might shape his political personality. But there is more mining to do, and in some cases, mining that can be left undone.
Perhaps, when Kagan is confirmed, and we look back at yet another nomination-by-numbers, we will redress the balance Marx spoke of between blanket coverage and zero interest. From Marx last year:
We’re hearing a lot these days about how newsrooms have to get by with fewer resources than they’re accustomed to. Learning to effectively deploy their remaining resources is the first step toward dealing with that fact.
Marx was right: Supreme Court nominations are, or at least, can be, funny things. And they’re important. Justices need to be vetted fully and thoroughly, if not so theatrically, and we need to read and see this process before they disappear out of public view and onto their bench.
But when we know a hearing’s outcome ahead of time, and the script rattles by unchanged, the outlet that finds the fresher angle—or devotes its time to a fresher story—will be the one that gets the last laugh.