New Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito has been a Justice Department lawyer, a U.S. attorney and a federal judge. Bill Clinton’s first Supreme Court nominee, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was a federal judge, too, but she also had been a liberal political activist, most notably as director of the Women’s Rights Project for the American Civil Liberties Union.
But in the first hours after each was nominated, network reporters assured viewers Judge Ginsburg was a “moderate” and a “centrist,” while journalists characterized Judge Alito as a right-wing extremist.
Indeed, even before President Bush announced Judge Alito’s nomination, reporters were in a labeling frenzy. ABC’s Charles Gibson called Judge Alito “very conservative” and “the most conservative member” of an otherwise “liberal appellate court.” Over on CBS, Gloria Borger dubbed Judge Alito “quite conservative,” the same label applied on CNN by early-morning anchor Carol Costello. On ABC’s “Good Morning America,” a breathless Jessica Yellin labeled Judge Alito as “conservative” five times in 50 seconds.
That night’s newscasts carried the same message. ABC anchor Elizabeth Vargas called Judge Alito a “staunch conservative,” while CBS’ John Roberts warned that “if confirmed, Alito would wipe out the swing seat now occupied by Sandra Day O’Connor, tilting the Supreme Court in a solidly conservative direction.” (In contrast, NBC anchor Brian Williams agreed Judge Alito was “dependably conservative” but also saw an “independent streak,” as did NBC reporter Pete Williams.)
Twelve years ago, those same networks denied Judge Ginsburg’s liberal ideology. A few hours after President Clinton announced Judge Ginsburg’s nomination on June 14, 1993, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell pronounced Judge Ginsburg “a judicial moderate and a pioneer for women’s rights.” The next morning on ABC, “Good Morning America” co-host Joan Lunden asked legal editor Arthur Miller: “We hear words like ‘centrist,’ ‘moderate,’ ‘consensus builder.’ How will she fit into this court?” Mr. Miller, a longtime friend of Judge Ginsburg, wrongly predicted she would be a centrist justice.
Now, network reporters fear Judge Alito may be too conservative in any future rulings on abortion. Nov. 1, the day after Mr. Bush named him, “Good Morning America” featured the on-screen headline “Will Alito overturn abortion rights?” through two segments discussing the nomination. Of Judge Alito’s 1991 ruling on the constitutionality of a Pennsylvania law requiring pre-abortion notification of the husband, CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said, “it’s a very good indication that this is a judge who will want to overturn Roe v. Wade.”
Twelve years ago, pro-life groups were concerned because the liberal Judge Ginsburg would replace Justice Byron White, one of two votes against Roe v. Wade. A National Right to Life Committee spokesman told CNN Judge Ginsburg’s approach “would invalidate even limits on late-term abortions, it would invalidate parental consent laws and the government would be required to pay for abortion.”
But in covering Judge Ginsburg’s nomination in 1993, none of the three broadcast network morning shows mentioned the concerns of pro-life groups or other conservatives. Amazingly, the only complaints forwarded to audiences the morning after her selection came from pro-abortion activists worried the liberal feminist wasn’t hard-line enough on Roe v. Wade.
On CBS’ June 15, 1993, “This Morning,” Paula Zahn hit a pro-Ginsburg guest from the left: “The National Abortion Rights Action League is not totally comfortable with this nomination of Judge Ginsburg. They do not feel that she supports Roe v. Wade fully. Are their fears justified?” Over on NBC’s “Today,” Katie Couric voiced similar fears to White House Chief of Staff Mack McLarty: “So you don’t think she has an open mind in terms of interpreting Roe v. Wade, as some abortion rights activists are concerned about?”
When the ideological labels were reversed, the broadcast networks were thoroughly indifferent to conservative anxiety about a liberal judge. Recently, they have seized upon complaints from professional liberal activists about a conservative nominee as they hype the coming Senate battle as “Armageddon.”
And the same hard-left activists who worried about Judge Ginsburg’s purity are presented as reasonable when they complain about Judge Alito’s alleged extremism. “I think it may even require the Democrats to filibuster,” pro-abortion activist Kate Michelman told “Good Morning America” early this month. But 12 years ago, conservatives troubled by Judge Ginsburg got no coverage on TV, where her “centrism” was feted.
Rich Noyes is director of research for the Media Research Center.