Watching Sotomayor, Part II

If it’s a fight, define the sides better

We had our fingers crossed that coverage of Sonia Sotomayor’s SCOTUS nomination would manage to skirt the sort of reaction reporting that gets into a tizzy on the basis of what political demagogues and pundits spout (cue: “Latina woman racist” and “reverse racism” comments from Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh, respectively) about the nominee. Especially when there is, at times, not enough distinction between what the pundits and what those who actually have a role in the confirmation process are saying.

Unfortunately, there’s still a lot of focus on the aforementioned comments. Politico, for its part, following up on the comments from Gingrich and Limbaugh, spends an entire article assessing whether the White House should or should not address Sotomayor’s 2001 Berkeley remark.

It’s not that we shouldn’t discuss it. It’s just that focusing on demagogic labels routes the discussion away from the people that really matter in the coming months. The conservative punditry may have weighed in, but they don’t decide whether Sotomayor will have a seat on the bench, and coverage should amply reflect that reality. Particularly given that among those that will have a say, the response to Sotomayor has been measured, civil even. Orrin Hatch, one of the Judiciary Committee’s senior members, called Sotomayor’s Berkeley comment “troubling,” but he also said:

I think we have to be fair. I think we have to do what is normally done, and that is scrutinize the record, look at the opinions, the unwritten opinions, the articles, the speeches, the various comments that have been made and so forth, and do it fairly.

It’s hardly the charge of racism raised by some conservative pundits. And so it’s wise to make distinctions, and not let the two sets of commentary run loose together.

The Salt Lake Tribune made that distinction yesterday:

Leading conservatives, including radio firebrand Rush Limbaugh and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, have ripped Judge Sonia Sotomayor, the president’s Supreme Court pick, for being a racist.

But Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, doesn’t buy it.

Now, Hatch is hardly a fan of Sotomayor’s; he has voiced his concerns about the judge and is likely to vote against her. Still, there’s a clear distinction between the way he has spoken about her in the past couple of days, and the way that Limbaugh and his ilk have been speaking, and the Tribune makes that clear.

A Washington Post article yesterday, though, fell into the trap with its second graf:

The White House enlisted lawyers and constitutional experts to say that in Sotomayor’s 17 years on the federal bench, she has been a cautious jurist who respects precedent. But conservative legal groups countered that her remarks in speeches and symposiums bolster their claims that she is a liberal activist waiting to flower on the high court. One prominent conservative accused her of “reverse” racism and another called her a “wild-eyed judicial activist.”

First off, the Post sets up the fight between the White House and “conservative legal groups”/“prominent” conservatives—which is ultimately misleading, given that it’s the Senate that will ultimately vote on whether or not to confirm Sotomayor. (The story’s headline, “Left and Right Begin Battle Over Sotomayor’s Supreme Court Nomination,” doesn’t help.) It’s fine to report on Republican opposition, but let’s make sure readers know what the sides really are, and to whom the White House needs to sell Sotomayor. (It’s not Rush.)

Speaking of which, let’s give the opposition some names high up. The “prominent conservative” is, in fact, Limbaugh; the unnamed other, who calls Sotomayor a “wild-eyed judicial activist,” is Curt Levey, the executive director of the conservative legal group Committee for Justice. The characterizations, floated as they are, get undue weight: only later does the reader learn that the first quote is from the pundit who once called the president “Osama Obama.” And as for the other, the story later has Levey acknowledging that his description “would be hard to extract from her record on the bench,” an admission that, um, changes the tenor of the comment.

The New York Times did better at making such distinctions, seeing fit to delineate—in an article about GOP response—that

while conservative activists and some Republican leaders outside the Senate are calling for a strong effort against the nomination, the reaction from some senators — who will actually vote for the nomination — has been notably measured, suggesting that they are not necessarily looking for a fight, barring some revelation in the weeks ahead.

Basic stuff, but it helps sort out demagoguery from more pragmatic (and yes, political) assessments of Sotomayor, and that’s always a good thing.

On the productive front, let’s also get more stuff like this article from the Times, which looks, albeit limitedly, at some of Sotomayor’s past appellate decisions concerning business and speaks with law scholars about them—in the process helping to characterize her actions and tendencies as a judge. After all, while the politics of this nomination are unavoidably prominent, that last is ultimately among the most important sort of coverage the press can provide.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.