Media Speculate That Media Will … Speculate!

The headline on Elisabeth Bumiller’s New York Times piece yesterday read as follows: “Bush’s Decision: Speculation on Contenders Begins Despite Entreaties.”

And so begins the SupremeStakes.

A close cousin to the Veepstakes (which we frequently complained about back when we were operating under the moniker Campaign Desk), the SupremeStakes is the useless, breathless speculation about whom Bush might nominate to replace retiring Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, precisely when the nomination might be announced, and what the odds are of said nominee getting confirmed by the U.S. Senate — peddled by the same cast of characters (reporters, talking heads, professors and Washington insiders) who assured us not a week ago that the next round of speculation would be precipitated by an imminent Rehnquist retirement. (Bumiller’s headline should have read: “Bush’s Decision: Speculation on Contenders Begins Right Here in the New York Times,” but, alas, the press is rarely so self-aware).

Like the opening of a bad mystery novel, Bumiller’s suspenseful lead has Harriet E. Miers, White House counsel, preparing over the holiday weekend “final dossiers … on the handful of leading contenders to succeed Justice Sandra Day O’Connor” and urging members of Congress to “avoid pressuring the president by publicly promoting or opposing specific people for the bench.” Yet “despite [Miers’] warning,” Bumiller reports, several legislators (and more than one reporter) began speculating about who might replace O’Connor. While her newspaper’s official “interactive graphic” includes ten contenders, Bumiller lists just five in her piece as “those mentioned as possibilities.”

Bumiller also offers readers some guesses as to the timing of Bush’s nomination, with a little help from some unnamed sources. “Mr. Bush is to consult with a bipartisan group of senators about the Supreme Court vacancy at the White House on July 11, and Republicans said the president was unlikely to nominate someone in the first few days after that,” Bumiller writes. And, “Naming someone so quickly, the Republicans said, would fly in the face of the president’s promise to be ‘deliberate and thorough’ in selecting Justice O’Connor’s successor.” Further, “One Republican ally of the White House said Mr. Bush’s top advisers were considering the merits of announcing a nominee as late as August…” (Italics are ours).

This on the same day when Bumiller’s colleagues, Carl Hulse and Adam Nagourney, reported that Bush’s aides are trying “to hold down speculation about the top contenders until Mr. Bush has announced his choice.”

Good luck “hold[ing] down speculation” at the Times, which today offers a piece by David E. Sanger headlined, “In Reading Bush on Court, Words Don’t Always Help.” (Translation: While Reading Into Bush’s Words Hasn’t Been That Helpful to Reporters Speculating About Whom Bush Might Nominate to the Court, I and My Colleagues Will Do It Anyway.) “From now on,” Sanger reports, “everything [Bush] says, especially in his interactions with reporters at the Group of 8 summit meeting in Scotland this week, will be dissected,” before Sanger himself goes on to do some dissecting.

The Times, of course, is not alone. On Sunday, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel made this contribution to the SupremeStakes: “Judge Diane Sykes of the Chicago-based 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has been mentioned as a possible successor to retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.” The Sentinel’s Chase Davis then added this caveat: “But being mentioned is a universe away from being nominated to the high court, and at least one observer says Sykes’ name has simply surfaced in the blizzard of names that are part of the rush of speculation that has occurred since O’Connor announced her retirement on Friday.”

One man’s “blizzard” is another man’s “orgy” — during CNN’s “Reliable Sources” on Sunday, Howard Kurtz devoted a segment to what he called the “weekend orgy of speculation about Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s successor.” Guests on Sunday’s “Fox News Watch” struck a similar note. Fox’s Cal Thomas predicted that O’Connor’s retirement will lead to “blockbuster speculation” by the media before adding: “At least [O’Connor’s] not young, blond and missing. So maybe we can elevate, a little bit, the level of intellectual discussion.”

Or maybe not.

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.