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Supremely Slanted

How the New York Times Pounds Conservatives and Coddles Liberals When Nominated for the Supreme Court

Sonia Sotomayor

SotomayorLiberal Justice David Souter held off his retirement until a Democratic president, Barack Obama, could name his replacement. That ended up being Judge Sonia Sotomayor of New York. The Times couldn't get enough of Sotomayor's New York City credentials (she was born in the Bronx) and treated her as a favorite daughter. While both Sotomayor and Judge Clarence Thomas both had compelling life stories, only Sotomayor's story was celebrated as such by the Times.

Sotomayor showed every sign of being an activist liberal. At the start of her law career she filed a formal complaint about a law firm staffer who asked if she had benefitted from affirmative action, yet later called herself an “affirmative action baby” on a panel of female judges discussing women in the judiciary. She served on the leftist-nationalist Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund and was not shy about opining on the superiority of “wise Latinas” over old white men.

The Times plumped for Sotomayor even before Obama made his official announcement, shown by the headline over a May 15, 2009 story by Neil Lewis: “A Resume Including 'Baseball Savior.'” Lewis didn't bring up Sotomayor's liberal background or decision-making.

That same day, legal reporter Charlie Savage did bring up Sotomayor's “wise Latina woman” comment, made in 2001 at a lecture on cultural diversity: “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.” However, the quote was buried under a bland headline: “A Judge's View of Judging Is on the Record.”

On May 17 Savage returned with “Conservatives Map Strategies On Court Fight,” which suffered from labeling overload. with the “conservative” label applied 14 times in non-quoted material in the first 600 words. (By contrast, the conjunction “and” appears only 13 times using the same parameters!)

The headline of the first profile on Sotomayor after her May 27 nomination was “A Trailblazer And a Dreamer.” While Sotomayor referred to herself as a liberal (“No matter how liberal I am, I'm still outraged by crimes of violence”) reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg wouldn't do so directly. Behold this thicket of hedging: “Judge Sotomayor has had several rulings that indicate a generally more liberal judicial philosophy than a majority of justices on the current Supreme Court....”

While the paper heralded her several times as baseball's “savior” -- she issued a preliminary injunction against owners and in favor of players that averted a Major League Baseball strike in 1995 – the paper's initial coverage did also sporadically raise controversial issues around the nomination, although the Times' tone remained overwhelmingly supportive.

Under the May 27 headline “A Careful Pen With No Broad Strokes,” Supreme Court reporter Adam Liptak brought up Sotomayor's terse, controversial vote as a federal appeals judge declining to hear the case of a white New Haven firefighter who claimed to have been denied a promotion on account of his race. That same day Neil Lewis admired Sotomayor's “rich personal story....the journey from humble beginnings,” while Linda Greenhouse cited her “stirring life story and impressive resume.” The next day, Adam Nagourney and Peter Baker also found it a “compelling life story.”

The Times even cautioned Republicans against trying to stop Sotomayor's ascent. A headline over a May 28 piece by Adam Nagourney read “For Republicans, Court Fight Risks Losing Hispanics to Win Conservatives.” Nagourney wrote “President Obama's selection of Judge Sonia Sotomayor for a seat on the Supreme Court has put the Republican Party in a bind, forcing it to weigh the cost of aggressively opposing the first Hispanic named to the court against its struggle to appeal to Hispanic voters.”

That same day, reporter Jodi Kantor gushed about Sotomayor on a “Political Points” podcast at “What they say is that she has kind of a common touch, you know, she's the kind of person who goes out of her way to talk to the janitors, you know, in the cafeteria, she'll not only speak to the cafeteria workers but she'll speak to them in Spanish, if they're Spanish speakers.”

On May 31, religion reporter Laurie Goodstein weighed in with more purported doubt about Sotomayor's ideology: “Sotomayor Would Be Sixth Catholic Justice, but the Pigeonholing Ends There.” Yet she ferreted out the fact that the four Catholics on the court who attend Mass regularly made up a “solid conservative bloc.”

A June 20 article by Charlie Savage denied Sotomayor was a liberal, insisting there was “Uncertain Evidence for 'Activist' Label on Sotomayor.” David Kirkpatrick stuck to that line in his report two days later, insisting “Judge Sotomayor is studiously narrow” in her opinions, which were “tailored to the facts of each dispute.” Benjamin Weiser chimed in on the same note July 2 with“Sotomayor's History of Recusals Suggests a Deep Commitment to Impartiality.”

The Times rarely put a label on Sotomayor's race-influenced political views. The paper labeled Sotomayor a liberal a mere five times throughout its massive coverage. Even those mentions were couched in caveats (“her rulings are more liberal than not,” “liberal but not particularly ideological”) unlike the straightforward assertion of the “staunch conservatism” of Republican nominees Thomas, Roberts, and Alito. Even while former colleagues were calling her “very liberal and a Democrat,” the Times couldn't bring itself to make the same obvious declaration.

As her confirmation hearings loomed, the Times' eyes shifted to local color. An epic front-page story July 10 invited us to swoon along with Sotomayor, “daughter of the Bronx,” in self-congratulatory New York City-style. The paper even provided a map of the five boroughs, spotlighting how Sotomayor owned the town, spotlighting her first apartment, her favorite Brooklyn pizza joint, and of course Yankee Stadium, home to her "beloved Yankees." The 2,300-word story left no room to describe her personal politics or theory of the law. A July 16 story portrayed her as a local idol: "At a Bronx School, Pupils Wonder: Did Judge Sotomayor Sit at My Desk?”

Showing impressive imagination, Sheryl Gay Stolberg extracted a flattering metaphor out of Sotomayor’s management of her own diabetes, writing July 10 that it mirrored her “no-nonsense attitude, combined with the attention to detail that characterizes her legal opinions.” The story’s headline was “Court Nominee Manages Diabetes with Discipline.”

Charlie Savage celebrated her confirmation by the U.S. Senate on August 7, with Sotomayor “completing an extraordinary narrative arc that began in a Bronx housing project where the Puerto Rican girl was raised by her widowed mother.”

That same day, Metro reporter Mireya Navarro wrapped up the coverage arc in puzzling fashion by returning to Sotomayor's infamous “wise Latina” phrase, “Claiming A Loaded Phrase.” Pointing out it had been “mocked by conservative talk show hosts,” Navarro said such criticism could backfire, making the odd argument that the Republican Party “may want 'Wise Latina' quickly forgotten if it reminds voters of criticism by some senators that was deemed unfair.” Really?