The Media Today

Amplifying Republican talking points around Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation

October 12, 2020

When Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in mid-September, it was reasonable to expect that the Republican push to replace her on the Supreme Court would upend media narratives around the election, which had heretofore been dominated by the pandemic. Fast forward three weeks or so, and Judge Amy Coney Barrett, Ginsburg’s nominated successor, was primarily in the news because a White House event President Trump convened in her honor transpired to be a COVID-19 superspreader event. (At least thirteen of the guests subsequently tested positive, including, of course, Trump himself.) Below the surface of the Trump-illness news cycle, good reporting continued to fill in details about Barrett’s background and philosophy, which have started to come back to the fore ahead of the opening of her confirmation hearing today. As the Washington Post’s Seung Min Kim puts it, however, COVID remains an “inescapable” part of the Barrett storyline, both logistically—Mike Lee and Thom Tillis, Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, will participate virtually after testing positive—and substantively, given Democrats’ desire to focus their questions for Barrett around the Affordable Care Act.

Not that Barrett’s record and views have been the sole, or even primary, focus of much advance coverage of the hearing: ample media attention has been lavished, too, on whether Joe Biden might move to “pack the court” (that is to say, expand the Supreme Court and/or lower courts) should he win in November. Last week, Biden told reporters that he’ll tell them his views on court packing “the minute the election is over.” He added: “it’s a great question, and I don’t blame you for asking, but the moment I answer that question, the headline in every one of your papers will be about that, other than focusing on what’s happening now.” (He has opposed court packing in the past.)

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Biden’s evasiveness was a hot topic on the Sunday shows yesterday. NBC’s Chuck Todd, Fox News’s Chris Wallace, and ABC’s Jonathan Karl (standing in for George Stephanopoulos) respectively grilled their Democratic guests Sen. Dick Durbin, Sen. Chris Coons, and Rep. Cedric Richmond and former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel for an answer. On CNN, Jake Tapper spent six minutes on the topic with Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager. Bedingfield protested that the question was a Republican distraction tactic. “It’s not the Trump people who invented this question,” Tapper replied. “The idea of adding justices to the Supreme Court came from the progressive side of the Democratic Party.” Later, Tapper snarkily thanked Bedingfield for coming on and “answering the questions—or deftly sidestepping them.”

Bedingfield—like her boss—was being evasive, and it’s clearly legitimate for journalists to push for clear answers on important policy matters. But Biden and Bedingfield are also correct: trying to refocus the Supreme Court debate around the notion of court packing is a Republican distraction tactic—a transparent effort to game mainstream media’s “both sides” impulse by yelling, But What About Biden?! (When Ronna McDaniel, the chair of the Republican National Committee, appeared on CBS yesterday, she tried to crowbar court packing into almost every answer she gave. “This is all the media should be focusing on,” she said.) Supreme Court reform deserves media attention. But it shouldn’t just take the form of shallow “gotcha” questions. And it is, currently, highly hypothetical—far more so than the fate that could befall the ACA and abortion rights in the likely event that Barrett is confirmed.

These topics have driven a lot of Barrett coverage—but on the Sunday shows yesterday, they got less airtime than the court-packing talking point. Across the five shows, only one Republican guest—Sen. Ben Sasse, who appeared with Wallace on Fox News Sunday—faced a substantive question about Barrett’s record, and even that interview began with a court-packing question. And none of them was asked about the rank hypocrisy of proceeding with Barrett’s nomination in an election year, given that Republican senators refused to consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland on timetable grounds—a discrepancy that many liberals consider, with some justification, to itself be a form of court packing. (Such questions were posed following Ginsburg’s death. They haven’t gotten any less relevant since then.)

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Another Republican talking point around Barrett’s nomination: the idea, prolifically posited by a bevy of Republican senators and their allies in right-wing media, that journalists’ questions concerning her faith are offensive, and should be off-limits. Mainstream media coverage of religion can often lack nuance and, sometimes, respect—but Republican attacks in this regard are blatant electoral bait, and an egregious attempt to have it both ways: to exploit Barrett’s appeal to religious voters while avoiding scrutiny for doing so. To the extent that Barrett’s religious views inform her substantive positions, they are fair game both for Democrats and for the press. (The Guardian recently reported, for example, that Barrett once signed a newspaper ad calling Roe v. Wade “barbaric”; are we supposed to just not talk about that?) The Republican attacks, though, appear to have injected an element of squeamishness and self-doubt into aspects of the conversation around Barrett’s faith. On CNN yesterday, Tapper asked Sen. Mazie Hirono, a member of Senate Judiciary, how Democrats might raise religion “without approaching religious bigotry?” When Republican committee members inevitably cry “bigotry” this week, we must be careful not to amplify it unless there’s substance behind it.

This week’s hearing is an opportunity to focus on substantive questions that have the potential to reshape American jurisprudence—and citizens’ rights—for decades to come. The preponderance of other pressing stories right now makes keeping that focus in our Barrett coverage all the more important. We don’t have the time or attention span to waste on triviality, silly hypotheticals, and contrived drama of the “partisan brawl” variety. That the Sunday shows, on the eve of this historically-important hearing, gave so much airtime to flimsy Republican talking points was not a good omen.

Below, more on the Barrett hearing:

  • Better questions: Recently, Brooke Gladstone, of WNYC’s On the Media, spoke with Michael O’Loughlin, a correspondent for the Catholic news outlet America Media, about early coverage of Barrett. Un-nuanced mainstream coverage of religion can put journalists of faith in “an awkward position,” O’Loughlin said: “we’re forced to sort of almost defend religious communities and ask people to explore the nuances of what’s actually happening, which can come off as defending the person themselves or what they believe.” In reality, “we’re just saying, let’s ask better questions.”
  • CJR on faith: Earlier this year, CJR ran a series of stories exploring how the press covers faith, including Adam Piore on Salem Media, Justin Ray on coverage of atheism, and Stephanie Russell-Kraft on Mister Rogers and Tom Junod. “Some journalists, narrative gods that we are, can feel crowded if there’s other divinity around,” we wrote at the time, in an introductory note. “Others are downright repulsed.”
  • Barrett on the press: The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press assessed where Barrett stands on press-freedom issues, and found her record to be “relatively light.” As a judge, she has “joined very few published opinions addressing First Amendment issues and has written fewer.” And her legal scholarship “sheds relatively little light on how she would approach First Amendment questions as a justice. She has characterized in passing Justice Antonin Scalia’s views on what originalism requires in the free speech context, but she has not elaborated on her own.”
  • The COVID angle: Sen. Lindsey Graham, the Republican chair of Senate Judiciary, has refused Democrats’ demands that attendees be tested before they can enter Barrett’s hearing; appearing on Meet the Press yesterday, Sen. Ted Cruz cast such demands as a delay tactic. Trump, for his part, addressed supporters from the White House balcony on Saturday; later the same day, his physician, Dr. Sean Conley, put out a statement claiming that the president is no longer contagious, though he did not say explicitly that Trump has now tested negative for COVID. Trump’s health continues to be a subject of media speculation. Late last week, Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, spoke with Dr. Christopher Tedeschi, an emergency medicine specialist, about the coverage in an episode of our podcast, The Kicker.

Other notable stories:

  • In Iowa, nine newspapers—the Des Moines Register, the Ames Tribune, the Burlington Hawk Eye, and the Iowa City Press-Citizen, which are all owned by Gannett, as well as the Council Bluffs Daily Nonpareil, the Mason City Globe Gazette, the Quad-City Times, the Sioux City Journal, and the Waterloo Courier, which are owned by Lee Enterprises—worked together to produce “Iowa Mourns,” a project dedicated to memorializing residents of the state who lost their lives to COVID-19. “Each of them deserves to be remembered as more than a number,” the project’s introduction reads.
  • Ben Smith, media columnist at the Times, has a deep dive on his colleague Rukmini Callimachi, whose reporting on ISIS has come under scrutiny after Canadian police alleged that one of her key sources invented his terrorist past. Callimachi “now faces intense criticism from inside the Times and out—for her style of reporting, for the cinematic narratives in her writing and for the Times’s place in larger arguments about portrayals of terrorism,” Smith writes. His reporting “suggests that she was delivering what the senior-most leaders of the news organization asked for, with their support.”
  • In other Times drama, Bret Stephens, a conservative opinion writer at the paper, wrote a column concluding that the 1619 Project, a major Times Magazine initiative rooting the American story in slavery, “has failed,” and “through its overreach… has given critics of the Times a gift.” A tweet from the account of the union representing Times staff accused Stephens of breaking the paper’s rules by “going after” his colleagues; “the act, like the article, reeks,” it read. The tweet was subsequently deleted; per Smith, it was posted “without any internal discussion… drawing heated objections from others in the Guild.”
  • Last week, hundreds of religious Jews gathered in Borough Park, Brooklyn, to protest social-distancing measures, and a group of them assaulted Jacob Kornbluh, a reporter with Jewish Insider. According to The Forward, Heshy Tischler, a City Council candidate, initiated the attack; yesterday, police arrested Tischler and charged him with unlawful imprisonment and inciting a riot. (His lawyer called the arrest “politically-motivated.”)
  • On Saturday, a man was fatally shot following far-right and far-left rallies in Denver. The suspect in the shooting is Matthew Dolloff, a private security guard who was contracted by 9News, a local TV station, to protect its staff covering the event; police arrested a 9News producer, as well as Dolloff, but later released the producer. A city official said that Dolloff was not licensed to work as a guard in Denver. The Denver Post has more.
  • For CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Emily Bell and Sara Sheridan write that Facebook and Google could do a better job when it comes to privileging high-quality local news over murky partisan websites masquerading as such. Facebook effectively allows third parties to self-identify as “news”; Google does not, but Tow research found that its “standards for identifying outlets as ‘news sources’ are inconsistently applied.”
  • The Philadelphia Inquirer is shuttering its printing plant and outsourcing production to a Gannett-owned facility across state lines in New Jersey, citing cost considerations. Almost all of the 550 employees who work at the plant—nearly half of the Inquirer’s total staff—will lose their jobs. (Gannett may rehire some of them.) A union leader who represents many of the staffers told the Inquirer that he was “blindsided” by the decision.
  • In 2017, Halla Barakat, an American journalist with ABC News and others, and her mother, Orouba Barakat, a journalist-turned-activist, were murdered in Turkey. Halla had investigated—and Orouba had vocally criticized—the Syrian regime. Turkish officials closed the case, but ABC and Reveal found “inconsistencies and outright contradictions” in the official narrative. Despite these, the FBI never opened an investigation of its own.
  • And after Q, a British music magazine, shuttered in July amid the financial wreckage of the pandemic, Paul Heaton, a musician with the British bands the Housemartins and the Beautiful South, made a large donation that Q used to provide financial support to its former staff and freelancers. Heaton said that the magazine was “always nice.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.