Supremely Boring

Big coverage for Sotomayor hearings; little chance of news

When it comes to media coverage, Supreme Court nomination hearings are funny things.

The nation’s political press corps, almost without exception, seems to believe that these proceedings are predictable, staged political theater. (The text accompanying a video on the front page of today, for example, is “The Confirmation Hearing Routine: A Fairly Standard Script.”) With respect to the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, the outcome of the hearings, which began this morning, appears to be not at all in doubt: “Unless you have a complete meltdown, you’re going to get confirmed,” Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told the nominee this morning.

The Sotomayor hearings are expected to last through the week; their first day has done nothing to dispel either the expectation that no news would be made or the general impression that the Senate has an overabundance of pompous windbags. Prominent members of the media, meanwhile, are urging Sotomayor not to actually discuss her views on any interesting topics.

At the same time, the media seems to believe that the hearings warrant breathless, non-stop coverage. The proceedings are being carried live on the cable news networks and live-blogged by, among other outlets, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Politico, The Atlantic, and National Journal. (NPR, on the other hand, has cut back on its coverage compared to prior hearings and will not provide an “anchored feed” to its member stations, though they can still choose to run unanchored audio.) The quantity of journalistic talent and resources accorded to an event that no one expects to be interesting is staggering.

This imbalance between the subject’s inherent newsworthiness and the attention paid to it has quickly taken coverage into the “meta” level. Politico’s Glenn Thrush, in a cheeky acknowledgement of this fact, cited “a source close to [Sotomayor’s fractured] ankle” in his preview of the hearings.

So what should the media do instead? Clearly, the hearings have to be covered—on the off chance that Judge Sotomayor does have a meltdown, we’ll need someone to tell us about it. And a confirmation hearing that went wholly unremarked upon would be bad news for government transparency. But the real journalistic meat here is in exploring some of the complicated legal and social issues brought to the fore by Sotomayor’s record, and the hearings themselves present a singularly unpromising forum in which to do that. A recording of the latest bloviations, platitudes and gaffes from the hearing room won’t do much to improve our understanding of the Ricci case.

More to the point, there’s a huge competitive opportunity here for a news organization that’s willing to grab it. While much of the press corps is fixated on a story whose ending we probably already know, there are other stories out there waiting to be broken—like what was really going on with that secret CIA program, or what the next scooplet on health care reform will be. Newsrooms can have more of an impact by uncovering stories everybody else is ignoring, rather than adding still more coverage of the story of the week–one that the media acknowledges isn’t much of a story at all.

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.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.