Media weighs knowns and unknowns around SCOTUS pick

It was pure theater when President Donald Trump stood up last night and named Judge—slight pause for effect—Brett Kavanaugh as his second pick to serve on the Supreme Court. Trump, who revels in made-for-TV moments, played his cards close to his chest in the run-up to the announcement: Politico reported on Sunday that even the president’s aides, knowing anything could still happen, had prepped messaging for multiple candidates.

In the days before Trump’s announcement, the media, too, compiled forensic notes on four main runners and riders for the Court vacancy: Thomas Hardiman, a runner-up to Gorsuch and favorite of Trump’s sister (who is a retired federal judge); Amy Coney Barrett, the top choice of hard-line conservative groups; Raymond Kethledge, an apparent preference of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell; and Kavanaugh, the consensus frontrunner.

ICYMI: Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN all use the same deplorable tactic

The suspense was only spoiled eight minutes ahead of time. NBC’s Pete Williams beat Trump to the punch and broke the pick to the world, and suddenly Kavanaugh’s talking points were shuffled to the fore of everyone’s pre-written stories. Most major outlets focused on his status as a Washington establishment insider with close ties to the Bushes, as well as his prominent role in independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s explosive investigation into Bill Clinton in the 1990s. MSNBC went in particularly hard on the latter point: Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell both drew attention to old articles by Kavanaugh arguing that sitting presidents should have a broad freedom from criminal investigation and indictment. (It should be noted that it’s not yet clear how those views could impact the ongoing Mueller probe, if Kavanaugh still holds them at all.)

Roe v. Wade and abortion rights did not sit as high in early reporting on Kavanaugh, despite having shaped much of the media debate since moderate Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement two weeks ago. Quotes buried deep in articles by The New York Times and The Washington Post, respectively, were telling on that front: The president of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List was tepid in her reaction to the appointment, while the head of the conservative American Family Association was outright critical, urging Trump to withdraw Kavanaugh and select Barrett—a more reliably anti-choice figure—instead. Pro-choice activists, however, aren’t breathing a sigh of relief.

For now, Kavanaugh’s views on abortion rights—as well as on a host of other, pressing legal issues—are cloudy. With so many unknowns hovering over Trump’s nominee, Supreme Court reporters at the Times, the Post, The Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere led their first Kavanaugh stories with what they know for sure, and have done ever since swing-voter Kennedy decided to step down. This appointment, if rubber-stamped by the Senate, will push the Court decisively rightward for a generation to come.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Below, more on Brett Kavanaugh, and the impending fight over the future of the Supreme Court:

  • The SCOTUS beat: There’s nothing distinctively Trumpian about keeping Supreme Court reporters guessing. As Amanda Palleschi wrote for CJR yesterday, the Court is, by nature, a highly secretive beast. “When big news breaks, the most seasoned veterans of the beat hear the news in real time, and pay attention to punditry and speculation just like the rest of us,” Palleschi says.
  • Follow the money: If confirmed, Kavanaugh will be a more liberal judge than Trump’s first pick, Gorsuch; at least, that’s what this New York Times analysis of the pair’s past political donations suggests.
  • “A liberal’s case for Brett Kavanaugh”: Also in the Times, Yale Law School Professor Akhil Reed Amar says senators should put aside partisan differences and confirm Trump’s new pick. Amar, who taught Kavanaugh while he was a student at Yale, writes that the selection is “President Trump’s finest hour, his classiest move….It is hard to name anyone with judicial credentials as strong as those of Judge Kavanaugh.”
  • Keeping up with Kennedy: In this quick, behind-the-scenes report, Politico’s Christopher Cadelago, Nancy Cook, and Andrew Restuccia say outgoing Justice Kennedy was influential in Trump’s decision to pick Kavanaugh, who used to clerk for Kennedy.
  • The Federalist paper: As Gorsuch progressed to the bench last year, The New Yorker’s legal eagle Jeffrey Toobin went deep on the Federalist Society’s Leonard Leo, a key broker of conservative judicial nominations. Leo’s pick this time around? Kavanaugh.
  • “The mood here is very volatile”: As protesters crowded outside the Supreme Court last night, Fox’s Shannon Bream shelved a live report from the scene, tweeting that she felt “threatened.”


Other notable stories

  • CJR Editor and Publisher Kyle Pope sat down with Dan Rather to talk Trump, Nixon, and Rather’s long career: “When I was at the Evening News, my goal every day was to make 25 phone calls. That was my goal. And a lot of days I achieved it. Sometimes it was just, ‘Senator, it’s Dan, what’s going on?’ Now, and I’m not proud of it, my goal is three to four phone calls a day.”
  • After former EPA chief Scott Pruitt’s reign of secrecy came to an end last week, Politico reports that the agency’s new administrator, Andrew Wheeler, plans to do things differently—at least where media relations are concerned. According to EPA flacks, Wheeler will publish details of meetings and trips in advance and hold regular briefings for the press.
  • The New Yorker took a giant step toward unionization after Editor David Remnick said management wouldn’t block the move, telling staff, “We’re in this together.” The magazine joins a spate of (mostly digital) publications which have organized in recent years—a trend Anna Heyward discusses in the most recent print issue of CJR.
  • Leonard Lopate, the long-time WNYC host fired late last year over allegations of inappropriate behavior, will be back on the air next week. According to The New York Times, a new one-hour show, Leonard Lopate at Large, will air on WBAI, part of progressive-leaning grassroots radio network Pacifica.
  • Manuel Duran, the reporter arrested by ICE while covering a protest in Memphis in April, told The Daily Beast’s Rachel Frazin that he was “without doubt” targeted because of his journalism.
  • ICYMI over the weekend, newly minted White House communications chief Bill Shine will travel to Helsinki for Trump’s much-anticipated meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin next week. Politico’s Annie Karni calls Shine’s inclusion “a sign of the new power center he will occupy in the White House.”
  • BuzzFeed’s Mark Di Stefano reports that The Times of London fired an award-winning data journalist last month after he uploaded fake reviews to the paper’s website in exchange for free concert and travel tickets.
  • And some news from the home front: Betsy Morais—a veteran of The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Harper’s who also serves on the Columbia Journalism School faculty—is joining CJR as managing editor.

ICYMI: The ongoing difficulty of keeping attention on the border

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR's newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.