On Monday evening, after the first day of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s confirmation hearings on Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, nightly news broadcasts on NBC and CBS gave uncritical airtime to a false Republican attack claiming Jackson was “soft on crime.”
This line of attack, which was first promoted by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) and is closely aligned with white nationalist personalities and QAnon conspiracy theorists, is built around the baseless smear that Jackson had given light sentences to child pornographers. In fact, Jackson’s sentences have been consistent with most judges who differentiate between those defendants who directly abuse minors and produce abusive material, compared to others who receive such material.
On Tuesday morning, Jackson responded forcefully to this smear campaign, explaining, “As a mother and a judge who has had to deal with these cases … nothing could be further from the truth” than Hawley’s accusations, and that her sentences have taken the victims into account. (In addition, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) pointed out that judges in Hawley’s home state of Missouri also routinely sentence below the official guidelines, including a Trump-appointed federal judge whom Hawley supported.)
Despite the fact that this vile Republican smear campaign against Jackson is completely unsubstantiated, it was still given oxygen by two prominent evening news broadcasts covering the day’s hearing.
On NBC Nightly News, chief White House correspondent Peter Alexander said that Hawley was “previewing a line of attack, accusing Jackson of being soft on crime, highlighting her sentencing decisions in child pornography cases.”
NBC then played video of Hawley’s claim that “in every case, in each of these seven, Judge Jackson handed down a lenient sentence that was below what the federal guidelines recommended and below what prosecutors requested.”
Alexander mentioned the response from Democratic senators, who have noted that “Jackson’s nomination has been endorsed by numerous law enforcement officials and the Fraternal Order of Police,” but the network failed to explain that Hawley’s actual statement was false, or provide any of the wider context around the multiple factors that go into sentencing. For example, Hawley totally omitted the role played by U.S. probation officers, with whom Jackson was often in line.
CBS Evening News uncritically included claims by other Republican senators that they would not engage in the “politics of personal destruction” by unfairly attacking Jackson, before CBS News chief legal correspondent Jan Crawford argued Republicans would instead “focus on her record,” including suggestions that she had “an extreme liberal philosophy and [was] soft on crime.” The CBS News segment included a video clip of Hawley’s baseless attack without pushback, providing unchecked airtime to his lie about Jackson’s judicial record.
PBS NewsHour did a much better job covering the confirmation battle, dedicating a full 10-minute segment to the first day of the hearings, which enabled anchor Judy Woodruff, congressional correspondent Lisa Desjardins, and The National Law Journal chief Washington correspondent Marcia Coyle to get into more details on the process as well as the nuances of the attacks lobbed at Jackson.
Desjardins, for example, noted that Jackson’s sentences in these cases were “not out of the norm.” Coyle further explained that Jackson’s work was consistent with what “most other federal judges were doing, because, at the time, those sentences were perceived as too tough and a mess, and the Sentencing Commission was struggling at the time with trying to work all that out. So, she was not out of the mainstream.”
In another interesting example from the last few days, Fox News contributor Andrew McCarthy wrote in National Review that Hawley’s attacks are “meritless to the point of demagoguery.” McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor, explained the complexities and some long-standing problems in the legal processes involved, and noted that Jackson “appears to have followed the guidelines, at the low end of the sentencing range, as most judges do.” (Keep in mind, McCarthy has a long history of partisan hypocrisy and special pleading on behalf of right-wing misconduct — but it appears that even he has some limits.)