Slate’s reporter on courts and the law, Dahlia Lithwick, highlights how Republican obstruction of Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court and an election cycle filled with Donald Trump’s insults and hateful rhetoric have harmed coverage of the stalled confirmation process, even as it persists into “unprecedented” territory and affects the court’s ability to function effectively. Lithwick notes that despite reporters’ impressions that voters don’t care about Garland’s nomination, a recent poll shows nearly two-thirds of voters favor nomination hearings for Garland. For reporters looking for a “potential story,” Lithwick points to the impact ongoing obstructionism has had on “close Senate races,” the “millions already having been poured in” to the anti-Garland blockade by conservative groups, and confusion within the Republican Party on anti-Garland strategy. She concludes by acknowledging that “paper answers to questionnaires will never compete with stories about Donald Trump’s teeny tiny hands,” but implores media to “move forward” and find a way to cover the “brick wall of inaction” as the “nonconfirmation season” continues.
From the May 10 article (emphasis added):
The only experience more absurd these days than trying to actually be Merrick Garland —dutifully attending courtesy meetings that lack any meaningful courtesy and painfully enduring what is surely the most insulting nonconfirmation season in American history—is trying, as a journalist, to cover Merrick Garland and his stalled nomination.
Because there is virtually nothing happening each day, there is virtually nothing to write about each day. And because we don’t write about it each day, voters continue not to know that it is going on each day. And since so many Americans don’t know about what isn’t happening to the empty seat at the Supreme Court each day, that all adds inexorably to the vague general impression that they must not care about it. And since they don’t seem to care about it, it hardly makes sense to write about it. Right?
If we can all now agree that something isn’t news if it doesn’t insult Muslims or berate women, then I guess Merrick Garland isn’t news. And because Garland faces a brick wall of inaction, the handful of actions he does take seem completely futile.
The result is that it’s been 55 days since the president announced Garland’s nomination, and the judge is now routinely banished to half a column on page A-14. This, despite the fact that the court is clearly operating in all sorts of diminished ways as a result of what will likely be a more-than-yearlong vacancy. As Washington Post reporter Robert Barnes recently noted, the court has accepted fewer cases for next term, and there is a question about how the big important issues now facing the court can be resolved in any definitive fashion this year.
This is the lay of the land, and we in the media had best figure out how we are going to move forward with it: There is nothing interesting about nothing happening to a 63-year-old judge. Moreover, the court is, by design, secretive and built of paper, and stories about Merrick Garland’s paper answers to questionnaires will never compete with stories about Donald Trump’s teeny tiny hands. Even the fact that “everybody yawns” when told about a Supreme Court vacancy being blocked in an unprecedented manner in U.S. history isn’t a story. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be.