- The Washington Times - Friday, May 29, 2009

Old speeches showcasing her virtue as a “Latina woman” and suggesting judges could make policy gave instant, visceral fodder to Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s critics in Republican circles this week.

But for much of the mainstream press, she was incredible, amazing and remarkable - three of the many adjectives used in news coverage to describe the Supreme Court nominee during the past 48 hours. Judge Sotomayor was often framed as a historic figure with street smarts, character and warmth.

“The media elite are helping to build Sotomayor up as a folk hero, whose sympathetic life story is supposed to trump issues of judicial philosophy or her controversial statements about using the courts to reshape the law,” said Rich Noyes of the Media Research Center, which analyzed recent broadcast treatment of the nominee.

The analysis said that coverage “stressed Sotomayor’s life, not her liberalism,” and specifically cited some contrasting coverage of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas when he was a nominee in 1991. “Make no mistake, old people, poor people, black people, women, forget about it. Clarence Thomas is not your friend,” noted NBC correspondent Bob Herbert at the time.

The study also cited CBS News descriptions of Judge Sotomayor as “very, very compelling” and “the political advisor’s dream candidate.”

“That’s a sea change from the media’s typical approach to conservative nominees, where reporters would help stoke fears that the ‘conservative’ or ‘ultra-conservative’ judges would supposedly trample the rights of women, minorities and the poor,” Mr. Noyes said.

Yet gentle treatment by the press is typical in the early days of a much anticipated event, some say.

“It’s a mistake to see an ideological or partisan bias in the coverage. The press loves conflict, and there will much to come in the confirmation process. But the press also loves feel-good, human-interest stories. I don’t see liberal bias here, but rather a great personal story. It’s irresistible,” said Democratic strategist Dan Gerstein.

“If President Bush had appointed someone with the same background - working class, an up-by-the-bootstraps story - the coverage would have been exactly the same,” he said. “Besides, the focus on her personal story will fade, and the press will focus on her credentials, her rulings and public record. Substantive criticism based on her record should ultimately drive the coverage.”

For now, criticism has gotten vigorous; Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich said Judge Sotomayor was a “racist” for saying that “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”

Doublex.com, a Web magazine founded by women and affiliated with Slate, has launched a “buzzword watch” to keep track of the insults, citing Mr. Limbaugh and Mr. Gingrich, along with 2008 Republican presidential primary candidate Mike Huckabee - who mistakenly called the nominee “Maria.”

The public is already casting a favorable eye on Judge Sotomayor, at least according to a Gallup Poll conducted Tuesday night and released Thursday.

It found that 47 percent of the 1,015 respondents rated her “good” or “excellent,” while 20 percent said “fair.” Only 13 percent gave her a negative rating, while 20 percent had no opinion. Respondents also ranked her experience as a federal judge as her most important qualification - ahead of her intellect, her views on issues, her sex and her Hispanic heritage.

In a similar survey taken in 2005, Gallup found that then-nominee John G. Roberts Jr. scored a slight four percentage points higher than Judge Sotomayor in terms of total impressions of “fair” or better, 71 percent to 67 percent.