Supreme Bias: Media Label Alito a Right-Wing Extremist

New Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito has been a Justice Department lawyer, a U.S. attorney, and a federal judge. Bill Clinton’s first nominee to the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was a federal judge, too, but her resume also showed she had been a liberal political activist, most notably as the director of the Women’s Rights Project for the ACLU.

But in the first hours after each was nominated, network reporters assured viewers that 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 on Monday morning, reporters were in a labeling frenzy. ABC’s Charles Gibson called Alito “very conservative” and “the most conservative member” of an otherwise “liberal appellate court.” Over on CBS, Gloria Borger dubbed 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 Alito as “conservative” five times in 50 seconds.

Monday night’s newscasts carried the same message. ABC anchor Elizabeth Vargas called Alito a “staunch conservative,” while CBS’s 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 Alito was “dependably conservative” but he 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 Ginsburg’s nomination on June 14, 1993, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell pronounced 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?” Miller, a longtime friend of Ginsburg, wrongly predicted she’d be a centrist justice.

Now, network reporters are fearful that Alito may be too conservative in any future rulings on abortion. Tuesday morning’s Good Morning America featured the on-screen headline “Will Alito Overturn Abortion Rights?” throughout two segments discussing Alito’s nomination. Referring to Alito’s 1991 ruling on the constitutionality of a Pennsylvania law requiring notification of the husband prior to an abortion, CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin declared, “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 Ginsburg would be replacing Justice Byron White, one of two votes against Roe v. Wade. A spokesman for the National Right to Life Committee told CNN that 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 Ginsburg’s nomination back 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 that the liberal feminist Ginsburg wasn’t hardline enough on Roe v. Wade.

On the June 15, 1993 This Morning, CBS’s 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. Now they seize upon complaints from professional liberal activists about a conservative nominee as they hype the coming battle in the Senate as “Armageddon.”

And the same hard left activists who worried about Ginsburg’s purity are presented as reasonable when they complain about Alito’s alleged extremism. “I think it may even require the Democrats to filibuster,” pro-abortion activist Kate Michelman claimed on Tuesday’s Good Morning America. But 12 years ago, conservative activists troubled by Ginsburg’s selection were shut out of TV coverage that celebrated her “centrism.”