NBC, CBS Slam 'Conservative' Court for Race Decision

The landmark 5-4 Supreme Court ruling that schools cannot diversify their student bodies based on race alone prompted two of the three broadcast networks, NBC and CBS, to hang the “conservative” label on the Supreme Court. 

Every network's reporter emphasized strongly the minority opinion read from the bench by Justice Stephen Breyer.  ABC used the word “scathing,” while CBS used “impassioned.”  NBC went with “blistering.”

NBC's Nightly News painted the most biased picture.  Reporter Pete Williams led his package by saying: “This decision vividly reveals how divided this current Supreme Court is on social issues.”  Williams described the majority ruling as coming from “the five most conservative justices.” 

Williams never quoted Chief Justice John Roberts' opinion, which included the memorable statement, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”  He did, however, quote this statement from Breyer's dissent: “it's not often that so few have so quickly undone so -- changed so much.”  And he did it not only on Nightly News but again on the Today show June 29.

Anchor Brian Williams gave the reporter another opportunity to bash the ruling by throwing a softball question to him after the story concluded:

Brian Williams: “You and I have spoken before about how relatively rare it is for the justice on a losing end of a case to read their opinion aloud from the bench. Today had even added emotion, I gamble.  What was it like inside the courtroom?”

Pete Williams: “Very high drama. One of the longest dissents from the bench that anyone can remember. Justice Breyer said this is a decision that both the court and the nation will come to regret. He said it threatens the promise of Brown versus Board of Education, the court's landmark ruling that desegregated the schools.”

CBS also labeled the court “conservative” in reporting the ruling.  Anchor Katie Couric led into the story (which came more than seven minutes into the newscast following a story on tainted toothpaste from China), by saying “The court was split 5-4, with the conservative wing led by Chief Justice John Roberts in the majority.”

Of the three networks, ABC's coverage was the most balanced and substantial.  World News anchor Charles Gibson led the newscast with the ruling and then followed that lead story with a “how this is going to work on the local level” report by Dan Harris. Harris's story featured a school system in North Carolina which has successfully applied a race-neutral, socio-economic measure to achieve classroom diversity. Both Harris and legal correspondent Jan Crawford Greenburg presented their pieces with minimal handwringing about the possibility of “resegregation.” 

ABC went a step further in a Nightline report delivered by Crawford Greenburg which included the story of a black civil rights activist in Louisville, KY, the locus of one of the cases on which the Supreme Court ruled.  The activist, whose nine children had been bused to schools under federal desegregation orders in the 1970s, applauded the Supreme Court's ruling.

Interestingly, none of the networks mentioned the concurring opinion of Justice Clarence Thomas, the only black justice on the court.  You'd think, on a matter involving race, they would have thought his opinion was important.

What did he say, you ask? 

“[T]here is no reason to think that black students cannot learn as well when surrounded by members of their own race as when they are in an integrated environment. …

Most of the dissent's criticisms of today's result can be traced to its rejection of the color-blind Constitution. … The dissent attempts to marginalize the notion of a color-blind Constitution by consigning it to me and Members of today's plurality. … But I am quite comfortable in the company I keep. My view of the Constitution is Justice Harlan's view in Plessy: “Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.”

Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.