When the nation learned in 2005 that Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito had belonged to a Princeton University alumni organization that advocated a cap on the number of women and minorities allowed at Princeton, the news media quickly circled the wagons to protect the Bush nominee.
When Alito was asked by Senate Democrats about his membership in the organization -- which he touted while applying for a job in the Reagan administration -- the media denounced them for going too far. The merest hint of a suggestion of an implication that Alito was a member of a racist organization was shouted down as an unfair slander; Democrats were pilloried for making Alito's wife cry with their inappropriate questions (though Mrs. Alito didn't actually start crying until Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham took to the microphone).
Gloria Borger, for example, said that the pertinent question was not whether Alito agreed with the Concerned Alumni of Princeton's clearly racist and sexist stance on university admissions, but "whether the Democrats took this a step too far today." Katie Couric added: "Too much to take: Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito's wife driven to tears after Democrats question his integrity. Did they go too far?" The media consensus that Democrats went "too far" in questioning Alito continues to this day. Fox News' Megyn Kelly recently claimed that during Alito's confirmation hearings, his wife was "crying hysterically after Ted Kennedy made her cry."
So it seems the news media treat even a suggestion that a Supreme Court nominee might be guilty of involvement in a bigoted organization as a vile slur. Even if the nominee touted his membership in a group that sought to limit the number of women and minorities accepted into his alma mater. Even then, such questions are treated as inappropriate and abusive scrutiny that have no place in civil discourse.
As long, that is, as the nominee in question is a conservative white male, nominated by a conservative white male president.
But as we learned this week, if the nominee is a progressive Latina nominated by a progressive African-American president, you can just come right out and call her a racist -- based on nothing more than a distorted quote and a ruling nobody has read -- and the media will take you seriously. They will amplify your complaints. Far from denouncing you for going "too far," they will pretend that your false descriptions of her comments are accurate.
Eight years ago, Sonia Sotomayor said that she would hope that in judging cases involving discrimination, a Latina woman would reach a better decision than would a white man who hasn't had her experiences. Past Republican Supreme Court nominees like Samuel Alito have said similar things, and it really isn't particularly controversial.
But if you change what Sotomayor said a bit -- drop a word here and there, change a few others -- to pretend that she said Latinas are better than white men ... well, that's racist!
And that's just what the right wing did. Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck, and other conservative media figures quickly insisted that Sotomayor is a racist and a bigot. They even compared her to David Duke. (Now, at first, you might think that if Rush Limbaugh is calling someone a racist, he must mean it as a compliment. But if you listen to his tone of voice and the full context, it's clear he means it as an insult.)
And the media, particularly cable news, took their complaints seriously. They quoted them, and they adopted the right's inaccurate shorthand version of Sotomayor's comments in order to explain why the conservatives were upset. News reports that explained that conservatives are distorting Sotomayor's comments were few and far between; reports that noted that conservatives have said similar things in the past were even rarer.
Just a few years ago, the mere suggestion that Samuel Alito should explain his membership in an organization that sought to limit the number of women and minorities at Princeton was met with outrage by the media. How dare the Democrats! They've gone too far! But now, with conservatives explicitly calling Sotomayor a "racist" based on manufactured evidence, the media can't even be bothered to point out that they are distorting her comments. Instead, the conservative complaints get taken seriously, as though they are a reasonable and fair interpretation of what Sotomayor said.
So it seems that lying about a Latina in order to call her a racist is just fine, as far as much of the media is concerned. Just don't you dare question why a white male belonged to an organization that sought to keep women and minorities out of his college. That's over the line.