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Sotomayor confirmation: So much coverage, so little news

It’s Friday afternoon, and for the first time all week, the frontpage of nytimes.com isn’t dominated by the Sotomayor confirmation hearings. (Instead, there’s a picture of Tiger Woods about to throw a golf club out of fury!) All week long, I’ve been asking myself whether the extraordinarily detailed coverage of the Sotomayor hearings was justified and necessary or pointless and wasteful. Now that it’s about done, it seems like a good time for some post-hoc reflection… Certainly, Supreme Court justices are among the most powerful, enduring figures in the the Federal government. Lifetime appointment to be 1/9 of a branch of government? Pretty important, even after acknowledging that, of course, the Supreme Court isn’t the entire judicial branch. Once ensconced on the bench, justices can profoundly alter the way we live. And, there’s only one chance to vet a nominee. Considering the qualities of some previous candidates (Harriet Miers, I’m looking at you), we need to have a very public reckoning, right? On the other hand, given the partisan nature of confirmation votes, the current population of Congress, and Sotomayor’s relatively well-documented and uncontroversial past (yes, I know she thinks that she’s wise), didn’t we know going into this process that it was going to be perfunctory? While I believe that our elected leaders should carefully and fully question and consider Sotomayor, does the occurrence of the hearing alone demand breathless coverage? If, as Lindsey Graham put it, Sotomayor would be confirmed unless she had “a complete meltdown,” shouldn’t said meltdown be the catalyst for such extensive coverage? Weirdly enough, I equate the coverage of the Sotomayor hearings with coverage of pop culture phenomena like Michael Jackson’s death. The topic matter is obviously different, but the bottom line is that the hearings and funeral are both basically ceremonial events, turned into massive media events. These events serve a symbolic function for us – they help us cope with mortality or ruminate on the functioning of our government. Given how dysfunctional both Michael Jackson and our government are, the takeaways from these recent events are a bit ironic. Really, setting Thriller aside, shouldn’t the narrative about the Sotomayor hearings be about just how futile they are? How ideologically hidebound and intransigent our politics are?

This was a theme – lots of stories noted that Sotomayor was exceedingly circumspect and careful in her answers – and there were some pieces that asked whether they were useful at all. But what I want to see is a little navel-gazing from the media, considering whether or not their coverage is useless – and that I haven’t seen. Instead of champing at the bit to recount detail-by-detail the mundane proceedings, how about a little analysis? Wouldn’t this be a good opportunity to consider how the check & balance system actually holds up? (To look, for example, at how the Roberts-led Court can mitigate a turn to the left by the Democratic executive and legislative branches?) Or, maybe spend less time on the hearings and more time on other, actually newsworthy, issues.

The introduction of health care bills got a bit of play from the press, but I would’ve been happy with wall-to-wall coverage of that instead of Sotomayor. Instead of just telling me that insurance and pharma lobbyists are pulling out all the stops against health care reform, how about some detailed coverage of this? Tell me who the lobbyists are, who they work for, what they’re arguing – let me decide if I need to boycott my neighborhood Big Pharma company! Or, hey – how about some detailed coverage considering the profits Goldman and JP Morgan reported & the government’s failure to move quickly on new regulation for the financial market? I would have loved for the Times – or Post, or WSJ – to have invested its resources in really reporting those stories. I would have read them, they might have affected the national dialogue, and maybe we’d all make tangible progress towards some real policy change. But these stories haven’t really been written.

I did look to see if I could find somebody in the media reflecting on the stories of the past couple weeks. All I found was a chat with Howard Kurtz – the media critic for the Washington Post. Amusingly, he seems to disagree completely with my interpretation and conflation of Jacko & Sotomayor. He decries the amount of MJ coverage, but argues that we really do need all the Sotomayor coverage – even if we know what’s going to happen. This is about the extent of the self-examination I can find from members of the media, reflecting on coverage of the hearing…

I’ll draw two conclusions and then sign off for the weekend. (Be sure to check out my newly uploaded academic articles – on the right. They’re sure to set the world aflame…) 1. I think this was a missed opportunity to consider the actual functioning of our government. Beat-oriented coverage has a tendency to get really bogged down in the day-to-day humdrum. An event like this is an opportunity to reflect and analyze more than just the nominee. I think this opportunity was squandered. 2. It wouldn’t have been so galling to miss such an opportunity if so many resources hadn’t been wasted in the process. Think of all the words printed in papers and broadcast over the air (cable!) that were of such little consequence. Think of all the attention lavished on this non-story. What a waste.

There are 2 Comments to "Sotomayor confirmation: So much coverage, so little news"

  • cate says:

    Lindsey Graham is an embarrassment to himself and his state. I should know, I live (t)here. I wonder if anything substantive will ever exit his mouth?
    My favorite comment of his wasn’t actually the meltdown one, it was the one about her being a bully.
    I think she’d win in a throwndown with him and make him cry like a baby.

  • lee says:

    You know, my mental picture of Lindsey Graham was completely disconfirmed when I was poking around the web before writing this.

    I think you’re right: Sotomayor in 6, TKO.

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