Unquestionably, the weirdest moment of news coverage of the newest Supreme Court nomination came on CBS, where the unveiling of nominee John Roberts was anchored by....another John Roberts, the CBS White House reporter.
The CBS veteran, previously known in Canada by his disc-jockey name J.D. Roberts, responded with admirable humor and humility at that strange junction, quipping that after four years on the White House beat, "I couldn't imagine the name 'John Roberts' and the phrase 'widely admired for his intellect, his sound judgment and his personal decency' being used in the same time zone, let alone the same sentence."
But permit me a flight of fancy and imagine how much fun we would have if we could have confirmation hearings for the other John Roberts before he could take the anchor chair at CBS, as he has made clear he desires. Self-important journalists would huff and puff at the very idea of screening journalists in such a fashion, but think about the joys of turnabout as fair play.
How would CBS's John Roberts hold up under questioning? Some critics are chastising John Roberts the jurist for a lack of a "paper trail" of positions. The exact opposite could be said of John Roberts, reporter.
Ten days before Bush was inaugurated, CBS's Roberts was pressing spokesman Ari Fleischer about John Ashcroft: "I could understand that as a legislator, your political ideology would fit well into your job description, but as somebody who is charged with executing the laws that are on the books, is it prudent for their ideology to be at odds with some of those laws?" But the ideology of CBS is constantly at odds with the current cast of Washington, and it's considered rude to question whether they should be trusted to offer the people a product called "news."
Reporters sniff at judicial nominees as they deny having strong ideological convictions in their confirmation hearings. Remember the horrified reactions when Clarence Thomas said he'd never really discussed Roe v. Wade with his fellow law school students? Nobody wanted to seem naive and say they believed that. But don't reporters as an everyday matter deny their biases despite long paper trails behind them?
In the current atmosphere, liberals and their media friends have suggested it's wrong for President Bush to pick a partisan-pleasing choice instead of a mealy-mouthed so-called moderate who offends nobody on the left. But when the job is network anchorman, partisanship seems to be required. When Dan Rather first pushed the Bush National Guard "scandal" in early 2004, there was CBS's Roberts flailing to keep the anti-Bush narrative alive. Even after dental records showed young George W. Bush on base with the National Guard in 1973, Roberts even groused how "the dentist who treated him has no specific recollection of seeing the future President." Partisanship doesn't grease your way to the nation's highest court, but it is a path to promotion at CBS.
Liberal groups are already putting front and center the Bush nominee's decisions on court cases involving a 12-year-old french-fry-eater on the Washington subway system and the alleged endangering of an obscure variety of southwestern toad. But imagine the yuks that could be enjoyed as a confirmation committee explored CBS's Roberts worrying in 1994 about killer golf courses: "If you took all the golf courses in all the land and put them together, they would equal the size of Delaware and Rhode Island. But the chemicals needed to tend those 3,000 square miles of grass are raising fears the links may be lethal."
Journalists walk around with the knee-jerk assumption that they are the most essential forces of democracy, there to enrich the nation and its citizens. They truly see themselves as the conscience of the country, the First Amendment ideal in the flesh. Thus it is inconceivable to them that anyone would cast them as less than idealistic, less than fair and accurate, less than helpful to the nation's well-being.
But venture out of the press buildings and into the street, and it's altogether a different world, where journalists are viewed with ever-increasing disdain and distrust. Why should anyone begin by assuming reporters have only noble motives, and perform only noble functions, when on a daily basis they assault the values held dear by most Americans?
CBS's Roberts should be thankful that another man with his name and not he will be on the firing line in the coming months. If his job were contingent on the blessings of John Q. Public, he might need to explore another line of work.