Sotomayor, Gingrich, and the demise of our press corps

To chase the “racist” story, the press had to play dumb on an epic scale in order to pretend that Judge Sonia Sotomayor's “Latina woman” quote was perhaps just as damning as Newt Gingrich and company claimed it was; to pretend maybe Sotomayor did think she was better than everyone else.

And, boy, did everyone in the press play dumb.

Last week's press coverage of Judge Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court was gruesome in so many ways, as reporters routinely fell down and failed to reflect even the most basic tenets of journalism.

One of the most disturbing examples of how fundamentals were ignored involved Sotomayor's now-infamous quote from eight years ago about a “Latina woman” judge reaching a “better conclusion” on the bench than her white male counterparts. Sotomayor made the comment as part of a speech she gave at University of California, Berkeley, in 2001 in which she explored what it would mean to have more women and minorities on the bench.

To see just how dreadful the coverage of that story became, let's look at the efforts by The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, which published nearly identical news articles about the unfolding political battle surrounding Sotomayor and the “Latina woman” quote, which conservatives have latched onto. The quote became the basis for the incendiary claim made by Newt Gingrich and Glenn Beck, among others, that Sotomayor is, in fact, a racist because she thinks Hispanic judges render better decisions than whites.

Here was how the Journal reported out the story on May 28 (emphasis added):

Conservatives are focusing on a speech Ms. Sotomayor delivered at the University of California at Berkeley law school, where she said, “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life.”

“Imagine a judicial nominee said 'my experience as a white man makes me better than a Latina woman.' Wouldn't they have to withdraw?” asked former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on his Web site. “New racism is no better than old racism.”

White House aides said the comment was being taken out of context, and predicted it wouldn't put the nomination off course.

And here's how The Washington Post treated the same story, on the same day, in a news article:

Leading conservatives outside the Senate, however, did not hold back, targeting a pair of speeches in which Sotomayor said appellate courts are where “policy is made” and another in which she said a Latina would often “reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life.”

Critics also targeted her support for affirmative action, with Rush Limbaugh calling her a “reverse racist” in his syndicated radio program, citing a case in which she ruled against a group of white firefighters who claimed discrimination in hiring practices. White House officials argued that the comments in the speeches were taken out of context, and they said that the firefighters case was an example of Sotomayor accepting established precedent, something they said conservatives should applaud.

For good measure, the Journal returned to the topic on May 30, again referencing the “Latina woman” quote:

Earlier this week, administration officials said the nominee's comments at the University of California, Berkeley, were being taken out of context.

Both the Post and the Journal reported on the conservative attack on Sotomayor driven by her “Latina woman” quote. Both the Post and Journal reported that the White House had complained the quote had been taken out of context. And incredibly, both newspapers failed to explain what the actual context was.

What was the context? When Sotomayor asserted, “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life,” she was specifically discussing the importance of judicial diversity in determining race and sex discrimination cases.

Placed in the proper framework, Sotomayor's comments become far less controversial. (She was not making a sweeping claim about the superiority of Latina women.) And placed in the proper context, the right-wing allegation that she's a racist utterly collapses and instead reveals itself to be the ugly, hateful charge that it is.

But Post and Journal readers were never given the context, which meant they were unable to conclude if the White House claim about the quote being unfairly lifted was accurate. Readers didn't know if the attack against Sotomayor -- that she was a “racist” because she thought minority judges were better than white men -- was fair and legitimate. Readers were left in the dark because all the Post and Journal thought to do was record the attack and get the White House response. It never occurred to reporters and editors at the Post and the Journal to spell out for news consumers what the context of the “Latina woman” quote was.

And trust me, those two corporate news outlets were hardly alone.

CBS' Bob Schieffer stripped out all context of the Sotomayor quote and then asked a Republican senator appearing on Face the Nation if it was enough to “keep her from being confirmed as a justice on the Supreme Court.” Keep in mind, virtually no senators currently oppose Sotomayor, not even Republicans. But Schieffer was eager to know if her nomination was doomed. The only thing more amazing than that was the fact it took a Republican senator to remind Schieffer that there was missing context to the “Latina woman” quote.

After many hours of Googling and searching Nexis and combing through television transcripts, I can say with complete confidence that not only did most news organizations fail to include context for the “Latina woman” quote, but it was the absolute iron-clad rule. Providing even passing context for the quote was basically banned. The Village Did. Not. Allow. It.

Politico, for instance, failed to provide context for the quote here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

So did Time, The Economist, Congressional Quarterly, The Dallas Morning News, The Denver Post's Vincent Carroll, USA Today, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and the San Francisco Chronicle. Pretty much every news outlet in the country followed the rule.

They all reported on the “Latina woman” quote. They all reported it was controversial. And they all failed to explain that Sotomayor was specifically discussing discrimination cases when she made the remark.

And that doesn't even take into account the dozens (hundreds?) of “Latina woman” mentions on TV last week that failed to provide any framework whatsoever. Instead, the quote was simply used as a springboard for conservatives to launch malicious attacks against the esteemed judge. (Select journalists who actually did include context last week included Hanna Rosin at the Double X blog XX factor, Mike Barnicle on MSNBC, and Westchester, New York, newspaper columnist Noreen O'Donnell.)

Given the near ubiquity of the press failing, it's hard for me to believe that it wasn't been done intentionally. I'm not into newsroom conspiracies, but it's just difficult to believe that among these elite, college-educated journalists, that virtually every one of them covering the Sotomayor story mysteriously forgot to provide even the slightest context for the “Latina woman” quote -- a single sentence from a speech given eight years ago. Having looked at this story from every angle, I can only conclude that the lack of context has been a conscious, deliberate decision by journalists to, in a sense, purposefully un-inform news consumers, which, of course, is the opposite of what journalism aspires to accomplish.

I don't see how reporters and editors working for some of the largest news media outlets in the country could, almost without exception, fail to include crucial context about the Sotomayor quote and have it be some sort of cross-country cosmic event. It just doesn't make sense. I think it's premeditated.

Why? Simple: The press has already penciled in weeks' worth, if not months' worth, of Supreme Court nomination coverage for this summer. Married to the idea that Senate hearings hold the promise of dissolving into the wild pie fights, like the raucous affairs that unfolded during the dramatic Clarence Thomas and Robert Bork showdowns, the Beltway press relentlessly hypes these stories even though, as more recent nominations have shown, the hearings themselves turn out to be wildly anticlimactic.

Worse for the press was the fact that early indications from key Republican senators last week were that Sotomayor faced a relatively easy confirmation “battle” and that excluding some type of unforeseen personal scandal, she was good as confirmed.

Where's the drama in that? How are reporters and pundits supposed to gobble up endless hours of TV talk time by simply marveling at how Obama picked an eminently qualified judge who garnered bipartisan Senate support?

That's not the storyline the press wanted to embrace. So, in order to prop up any semblance of Sotomayor drama, the press turned away from Republican senators and turned its time and attention to highlighting outlandish claims made by GOP Noise Machine leaders, like Limbaugh and Gingrich, who were in heated agreement that Sotomayor was a racist. (Fact: The press treated that hateful claim with a stunning nonchalance, as if that kind of character assassination were commonplace for Supreme Court nominees.)

That was a story the press could get excited about. But to chase the “racist” story, the press had to both embrace and amplify conservative talking points about Sotomayor and play dumb on an epic scale in order to pretend that the “Latina woman” quote was perhaps just as damning as Gingrich and company claimed it was, to pretend maybe Sotomayor did think she was better than everyone else.

And, boy, did everyone play dumb. And I thought staffers at The Washington Post played dumb especially well. The entire newsroom got into the act while “covering” the Sotomayor “Latina woman” angle. Don't believe me? See for yourself.

The Washington Post editorial page? Check.

Howard Kurtz? Check.

George Will? Check.

Ruth Marcus? Check. And check.

Dana Milbank? Check.

David Broder? Check.

None of the high-profile Post writers ever bothered to explain the context of the “Latina woman” quote. Incredibly, Milbank wrote an entire column about it without putting it in context.

Bottom line: It was virtually impossible for Post readers to understand what Sotomayor was referring to with the 8-year-old “Latina woman” quote. But it was possible, given the purposefully sketchy reporting, to see how Sotomayor might be prejudiced.

Sadly, I have a hunch that was the whole point of the misguided newsroom exercise.