Network news went virtually dark on Roberts nomination, ignored release of Reagan administration memos


On July 20, the ABC, CBS, and NBC evening news programs reported on President Bush's July 19 nomination of Judge John G. Roberts Jr. to the Supreme Court -- offering initial characterizations of Roberts's ideology and judicial philosophy. But since then, they have gone virtually dark on covering the story. A week after Roberts's nomination, thousands of documents from his time as a lawyer in the Reagan administration were released. Print media such as The New York Times and The Washington Post have reported in some detail on the contents of the documents. The network news programs, however, have largely ignored them, despite the abundance of information regarding legal and political positions Roberts advocated that would presumably bear on his judicial philosophy.

In their network news coverage the day after the Roberts nomination, ABC, CBS, and NBC offered statements on Roberts's ideology:

  • ABC anchor Charles Gibson stated "He is generally seen as quite conservative."
  • CBS anchor John Roberts reported that "conservative groups are singing Judge Roberts's praises," but legal analyst Andrew Cohen added, "I don't see anything in what I've read or looked at in his record that suggests that he's outside of the mainstream." When anchor Roberts asked if President Bush had "attempted to move the court further to the right with this pick," contributor Gloria Borger replied, "I think it's very clear that he has." Borger elaborated, "President Bush is a conservative ... I think he picked someone in his own mold."
  • NBC chief White House correspondent David Gregory portrayed Roberts as "a strong conservative who is unlikely to turn off most Democrats." News correspondent Chip Reid cited speculation by Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, that Roberts "might be a stealth candidate, moderate on the outside but as conservative as justices [Antonin] Scalia and [Clarence] Thomas on the inside."

Network coverage on July 20 also explored Roberts's opinions on politically charged issues:

  • ABC White House correspondent Kate Snow reported that Roberts had been "the go-to lawyer for corporations" and that "it's hard to know where he'll come down on abortion cases as a justice, though he is a practicing Catholic." ABC chief congressional correspondent Linda Douglass noted that "liberal groups protested Roberts's nomination, insisting he will undermine abortion rights."
  • NBC's Gregory highlighted "Roberts's argument to roll back abortion rights as deputy solicitor general in George Herbert Walker Bush's Justice Department." NBC justice correspondent Pete Williams explained that Roberts had once argued that "Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided and should be overruled," but added that Roberts later "said he was representing his client, the government, and that he saw it otherwise." NBC legal analyst Jonathan Turley stated, "He hasn't written many opinions, he has not given many public speeches, and he is not given to controversial statements. This is a very careful guy."

The networks also offered coverage of Roberts's prospects for confirmation on July 20:

  • ABC's Douglass stated that "the prospects of a Democratic filibuster against Roberts are fading."
  • CBS' Borger reported that "interest groups, particularly on the left ... are planning to spend millions and millions of dollars to oppose Judge Roberts." She added that "some Democrats are going to them [interest groups] and saying, 'Look, keep your powder dry ... This may not be the man to make the fight on.' " CBS correspondent Roberts asked, "So may they be waiting until September ... to unload?" Borger replied, "They could be waiting until September. I think we're going to have to wait and see what the paper trail shows ... The [Senate Judiciary] committee will be going over his record with a fine-toothed comb." CBS' Andrew Cohen added, "I don't think there is a paper trail. I think that's part of the reason the president picked him."
  • NBC's Turley reported, "He presents very little of a target for the Democrats."

But despite their early characterizations of Roberts's ideology and judicial philosophy, ABC, NBC, and CBS have all but ignored the July 26 document release, and have yet to revise -- or even revisit -- their previous statements. On the July 24 broadcast of CBS' Evening News, anchor John Roberts made passing mention of the White House's refusal to release some memos written by the Supreme Court nominee as a segue into a segment on his high school career. Only the July 26 broadcast of ABC's World News Tonight, Douglass reported Roberts's positions on desegregation and sexual discrimination, as indicated by the memos. As of August 1, ABC and CBS have yet to revisit the documents, and NBC has ignored them entirely.

By contrast, following the July 26 release of documents from Roberts's time as a Justice Department lawyer during the Reagan administration, the print media have reported in some detail on the memos, as well as on the administration's refusal to release memos written while Roberts was deputy solicitor general under President George H.W. Bush. A July 27 New York Times article reported: "In one handwritten memorandum, Judge Roberts suggested his view of how the Constitution should be interpreted, saying, 'real courage would be to read the Constitution as it should be read,' without attention to what outside commentators were writing." The Times also reported Roberts's position on school desegregation: "He defended, for instance, the constitutionality of proposed legislation to restrict the ability of federal courts to order busing to desegregate schools."

A July 27 Washington Post article reported that "Roberts presented a defense of bills in Congress that would have stripped the Supreme Court of jurisdiction over abortion, busing and school prayer cases," and "argued for a narrow interpretation of Title IX, the landmark law that bars sex discrimination in intercollegiate athletic programs." The Post also stated that "In the rare instances revealed in the documents in which Roberts disagreed with his superiors on the proper legal course to take on major social issues of the day, he advocated a more conservative tack."

Posted In
Government, Nominations & Appointments, The Judiciary
Supreme Court Nominations
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