ANALYSIS: No Sizzle in Sotomayor Hearings

With no Clarence Thomas-level drama surrounding Supreme Court nominee, news networks stick to parsing legalese.
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As Supreme Court nomination hearings go, Sonia Sotomayor’s cross-examination by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee was somewhat lacking in fireworks, leaving news organizations to get creative in their analysis and at times inject a little hyperbole into the proceedings.

In a July 13 piece for BBC World News America, correspondent Katty Kay noted that hearings to suss out the qualifications and legal disposition of the first Latina nominee amounted to an opportunity for the mostly old, exclusively white men on the committee to argue with each other.

“We had to give ourselves permission to treat this with a little bit of accent and attitude and say, ‘This is the chance for these white guys to preen,’” said Rome Hartman, executive producer of World News America.

“It’s about me! What do I think? Enough about you, Sonia,” joked Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly.

With a dearth of truly controversial rulings to deconstruct, members of the judiciary committee took to parsing Sotomayor’s words, most notably the now infamous “wise Latina” speech.

And while media analysts noted that senators including Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) who serve constituencies with significant Hispanic populations must tread lightly, they may not have tread lightly enough for some.

“I think [the ‘wise Latina’ comment] has been taken out of context,” says Angel Sepúlveda, VP of programming for Terra.com, a leading provider of online content for the U.S. Hispanic market. “I think she came clean and was clear on that comment. She already apologized for it. Can we just move on?”

The hearings did move on—to the dry dissection of legal precedent and Sotomayor’s repeated reluctance to engage in legal hypotheticals, even on issues as straightforward as net neutrality and cameras in the Supreme Court.

Not exactly scintillating television.

“It’s one of the features of these events now,” Hartman says. “They’ve been turned into Kabuki dances. They are so predictable and so well choreographed. The goal is to wring all possibility of interest and error out of the system, and so there are no great moments like those during the [Robert] Bork and [Clarence] Thomas [hearings]. The whole process leading up to these hearings is to make sure nothing like that happens.”

In the absence of discussions about pornography (Thomas) or Roe v. Wade (Bork), anchors worked to translate the dense legalese.

CNN had a phalanx of legal analysts including Jeffrey Toobin, whose recent book The Nine explores the “secret world” of the Supreme Court. Fox News prepared graphics with definitions of obscure legal terms.

“I think that does help,” says Fox’s Kelly. “I’ve gotten a lot of good viewer feedback on how that [has] helped the viewers.”

“Beyond that, it’s tough,” she adds. “You don’t want to interrupt the senators. So you use your panel breaks to get people up to speed on what they were talking about. Some of the back-and-forth is pretty esoteric. But I think if people are watching this wall to wall, they have heightened interest in this kind of thing.”

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