Now that it is likely there will soon be a debate over a Supreme Court nominee, let's take a look back at the media's coverage of the last such debate.
In 2005, President Bush nominated the staunchly conservative Samuel Alito to fill Sandra Day O'Connor's seat on the high court. Former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie and Bush strategist Steve Schmidt formally ran the campaign to get Alito through the confirmation process, though at times it seemed much of the news media was auditioning for the job.
Reporters often responded to Democratic skepticism about Alito by suggesting the Democrats were "prejudging" Alito or reaching an "early verdict" -- while applying no such assessments to Republicans who spoke favorably of him. As I explained at the time:
A frequent theme of media coverage of Supreme Court nominee Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr.'s nomination hearing has been that Democrats -- but not Republicans -- entered the hearing with closed minds, having already decided how they were going to vote.
In repeatedly suggesting that Democrats had made up their minds about Alito before the hearing began -- and less frequently suggesting it of Republicans -- news outlets reinforced a claim often made by Republicans: Democrats would oppose anybody Bush nominated. And by focusing on the Democrats, the media let Republicans off the hook. In fact, the Republicans' job is no more to grease the wheels for Bush's nominee than the Democrats' is to decide in advance to oppose.
Reporters not only suggested it was inappropriate for Democrats to prematurely oppose Alito, they suggested it was inappropriate for Democrats to examine Alito's record and background. When they did so, Fox News' Neil Cavuto called Democrats "villains" while on-screen text labeled them "vicious" and "clueless." On CNN, Ed Henry uncritically repeated GOP claims that the Democrats were guilty of "hitting below the belt." And on CBS, Gloria Borger suggested they "took this a step too far," adding, "[S]ome say they went over the line." Newsweek called the Democrats "bullies," and Gwen Ifill described liberal criticism of Alito as "demonization."
Reporter after reporter accused Democratic senators of being so abusive they made Alito's wife cry. In fact, Martha-Ann Alito had an emotional reaction to questioning of her husband by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham (SC), during which Graham asked Alito if he was "really a closet bigot" and told him, "I am sorry that you've had to go through this. I am sorry that your family has had to sit here and listen to this."
Graham was referring to questions about Alito's membership in an organization called Concerned Alumni of Princeton -- a group that opposed increased admission of women and minorities to the Ivy League school, arguing "a student population of approximately 40 percent women and minorities will largely vitiate the alumni body of the future."
But, to the news media, asking Alito about his membership in such an organization was so vicious and over the line that Democrats had driven Alito's wife to tears.
It should be no surprise reporters rushed to downplay Alito's ties to the group. Bob Novak, for example, claimed there was "no evidence" Concerned Alumni of Princeton was "against women." In fact, there was considerable such evidence. Then there was this exchange between Chris Matthews and Chuck Todd:
MATTHEWS: Calling him a racist because he's a member of some tired-ass yesterday's mossbag Princeton alumni group, that's all he's got on him?
CHRIS CILLIZZA: Well, like Chuck --
TODD: Bill Bradley was a member of that group.
TODD: Now granted he --
MATTHEWS: -- for a while.
TODD: -- yeah, I mean, so you can't, look --
MATTHEWS: Thirty-year public adult record, and all you can nail him for is some club he never went to?
It probably isn't any great shock to see Matthews dismissing the relevance of membership in a group that opposed the admission of women and minorities to Princeton. But it should be noted that Todd's invocation of former Democratic senator Bill Bradley's membership in the group was wildly misleading. See, Bradley quit and renounced his membership in 1973, calling it a "right-wing" organization and criticizing its opposition to admitting women and minorities. Alito, on the other hand, bragged about his membership in the alumni group on a job application he filed with the Reagan administration. So the situations were a little different.
The controversy over the Princeton alumni group wasn't the only criticism of Alito the media twisted and turned into a vicious and inappropriate attack. When a Democratic National Committee document noted that, as a prosecutor, Alito lost a high-profile case -- a loss one contemporaneous news account described as "stunning" -- Matthews distorted the document, falsely claiming it had attacked Alito's "ethnicity" and accused him of being "lenient on the mob." Matthews' lies were quickly picked up by other media.
When concerns were raised over Alito's broken pledge to recuse himself from cases involving companies in which he had a financial interest, the media rushed to cover for Alito. The New York Times, for example, reported without challenge Alito's claim that the pledge had been limited to a certain period of time after his confirmation. That claim was false.
CNN's Soledad O'Brien said of the criticism of Alito's failure to recuse himself:
Doesn't it bode poorly for Democrats when you say this is the smoking gun you're coming up with, something over a relatively small investment in Vanguard, which legally, technically, he didn't have to recuse himself from anyway?
The "relatively small investment" in question was at least $390,000.
Meanwhile, reporters portrayed the Democrats as desperate to find an excuse to oppose Alito. CNN's Wolf Blitzer suggested that Democrats' efforts to examine documents relating to an organization Alito belonged to was "simply a fishing expedition designed to look for something that may or may not be there." His CNN colleague, Bob Franken, declared that the Democrats' "questioning could turn to the desperate side." Also on CNN, John King told viewers: "The Democrats are looking ... either for some way to trip him up on the way to nomination or for some -- perhaps a reason to justify a filibuster."
And they made it quite clear that a filibuster would be inappropriate. One CNN anchor suggested a filibuster would not be "dignified," while another wondered if Alito would "get the fair vote the president has been asking for." The Wall Street Journal's Daniel Henninger pretended Democrats had invented the concept of filibustering judicial nominees in order to keep Bush appointees off the bench -- an absurd claim in light of the fact that Republicans filibustered a Democratic Supreme Court nominee nearly 40 years earlier, and filibustered and otherwise denied a vote to dozens of Clinton's nominees.
Throughout the process, media portrayed Alito as a moderate (he wasn't) and claimed that Clinton nominee Ruth Bader Ginsburg was seen as very liberal when she was nominated (no, she wasn't) but won Republican support anyway -- suggesting that Democrats should support Alito.
Tim Russert, for example, suggested that because Republicans supported Ginsburg, Democrats should support whoever Bush selected. But Clinton nominated Ginsburg in consultation with Senate Republicans; Sen. Orrin Hatch (UT) actually recommended her to Clinton. Pointing to GOP support for Ginsburg as a reason why Democrats should support Alito was a nonsensical and perverse portrayal of the history of the Ginsburg nomination -- but it was quite common.
Now, if you're going to mislead viewers about a Supreme Court nominee this badly, it helps if you stack your guest lists so there are few people on air who might correct you. And that's just what television news did -- again and again and again. (Oh, by the way: Guess who will be on Meet the Press this weekend to discuss David Souter's resignation? Former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough and former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie.)
To be clear: I am not suggesting the media should act as cheerleaders for President Obama's Supreme Court nominees the way they did so for President Bush's. Far from it. The media's coverage of the Alito nomination was a low point, even by the standards of their generally compliant coverage of the Bush administration. Such fealty to power is an abdication of their responsibility no matter who sits in the Oval Office. But neither should they repeat the eager repetition of false conservative spin that marked their conduct during the Alito hearings. Their coverage of Alito's nomination skewed heavily in favor of conservatives; they should be careful not to allow that to happen again.