Still More on Sotomayor

I know from anecdotal experience that my views about the value of the Senate hearings on Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court nomination—and thus, on press coverage of those hearings—are not universally held. But I think I found support for my position in a few stories out today.

First, from Charlie Savage’s “News Analysis” in today’s New York Times:

On most issues — gun rights, the death penalty, campaign finance restrictions, the scope of presidential and Congressional power, property rights and affirmative action — she simply described precedents until she had talked for a while, and then stopped and waited for the next question.

The performance left some observers seeking meaning in the hearing’s absence of meaning.

Meanwhile, Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick, one of the best legal writers around, asks:

Now that we have tweeted, dialogued, podcast, analyzed, and live-blogged these hearings into oblivion, we can finally step back ask ourselves: What have we learned?

and answers:

The amazing thing, come to think of it, is that after four long days of testimony and questions and expert panels, our collective knowledge about this nominee has actually decreased.

before concluding:

All I know is that when bleary-eyed members of the press corps start showing one another their baby photos—the way you do on the last hour of a plane flight to Australia—it’s definitely time to pack it up and go home.

Earlier this week, Lithwick lamented that it didn’t have to be this way. I wish she were right, but as Kevin Drum explains, the week’s political theater was entirely predictable. (At the legal blog Balkinization, Heather K. Gerken takes a mournful look at the consequences of this phenomenon.)

Now, there is an argument to be made that the hearings deserved wall-to-wall press coverage nonetheless, because of the role the court plays more broadly, and the public attention it attracts. In her Wednesday piece, Lithwick described the “lines of people waiting patiently to get into these hearings, even if just for a few moments.” And today, she writes:

This whole process was designed to divine the unknowable from a nominee determined not to be known. We’d likely do better with a Magic 8 Ball. Still, we covered it as if it were better than the Michael Jackson story. (Thank God.) That’s because, mercifully, Americans care so much about their Supreme Court, they just really wanted to meet its next member.

I’m sympathetic to the point. I also think Lithwick, by calling attention to the hearings’ vacuity and spelling out how they might be more useful, has made her coverage as good as it could be. And, like her, I wish we had better Supreme Court hearings than we do. But we don’t. And when it makes decisions about what to cover, the press should should operate based on what it knows—not what it wishes—to be true.

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