Saturday, May 30, 2009

Suddenly it's OK to call a judicial nominee a racist

When the nation learned in 2005 that Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito had belonged to a Princeton University alumni organization that advocated a cap on the number of women and minorities allowed at Princeton, the news media quickly circled the wagons to protect the Bush nominee.

When Alito was asked by Senate Democrats about his membership in the organization -- which he touted while applying for a job in the Reagan administration -- the media denounced them for going too far. The merest hint of a suggestion of an implication that Alito was a member of a racist organization was shouted down as an unfair slander; Democrats were pilloried for making Alito's wife cry with their inappropriate questions (though Mrs. Alito didn't actually start crying until Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham took to the microphone).

Gloria Borger, for example, said that the pertinent question was not whether Alito agreed with the Concerned Alumni of Princeton's clearly racist and sexist stance on university admissions, but "whether the Democrats took this a step too far today." Katie Couric added: "Too much to take: Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito's wife driven to tears after Democrats question his integrity. Did they go too far?" The media consensus that Democrats went "too far" in questioning Alito continues to this day. Fox News' Megyn Kelly recently claimed that during Alito's confirmation hearings, his wife was "crying hysterically after Ted Kennedy made her cry."

So it seems the news media treat even a suggestion that a Supreme Court nominee might be guilty of involvement in a bigoted organization as a vile slur. Even if the nominee touted his membership in a group that sought to limit the number of women and minorities accepted into his alma mater. Even then, such questions are treated as inappropriate and abusive scrutiny that have no place in civil discourse.

As long, that is, as the nominee in question is a conservative white male, nominated by a conservative white male president.

But as we learned this week, if the nominee is a progressive Latina nominated by a progressive African-American president, you can just come right out and call her a racist -- based on nothing more than a distorted quote and a ruling nobody has read -- and the media will take you seriously. They will amplify your complaints. Far from denouncing you for going "too far," they will pretend that your false descriptions of her comments are accurate.

Eight years ago, Sonia Sotomayor said that she would hope that in judging cases involving discrimination, a Latina woman would reach a better decision than would a white man who hasn't had her experiences. Past Republican Supreme Court nominees like Samuel Alito have said similar things, and it really isn't particularly controversial.

But if you change what Sotomayor said a bit -- drop a word here and there, change a few others -- to pretend that she said Latinas are better than white men ... well, that's racist!

And that's just what the right wing did. Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck, and other conservative media figures quickly insisted that Sotomayor is a racist and a bigot. They even compared her to David Duke. (Now, at first, you might think that if Rush Limbaugh is calling someone a racist, he must mean it as a compliment. But if you listen to his tone of voice and the full context, it's clear he means it as an insult.)

And the media, particularly cable news, took their complaints seriously. They quoted them, and they adopted the right's inaccurate shorthand version of Sotomayor's comments in order to explain why the conservatives were upset. News reports that explained that conservatives are distorting Sotomayor's comments were few and far between; reports that noted that conservatives have said similar things in the past were even rarer.

Just a few years ago, the mere suggestion that Samuel Alito should explain his membership in an organization that sought to limit the number of women and minorities at Princeton was met with outrage by the media. How dare the Democrats! They've gone too far! But now, with conservatives explicitly calling Sotomayor a "racist" based on manufactured evidence, the media can't even be bothered to point out that they are distorting her comments. Instead, the conservative complaints get taken seriously, as though they are a reasonable and fair interpretation of what Sotomayor said.

So it seems that lying about a Latina in order to call her a racist is just fine, as far as much of the media is concerned. Just don't you dare question why a white male belonged to an organization that sought to keep women and minorities out of his college. That's over the line.


On Tuesday morning, President Obama announced his nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court. In the four short days that followed, understandably, most of the media's attention has centered on the nominee, though much of that attention has been riddled with conservative misinformation.

Yesterday, Media Matters released a special report noting that in coverage of Obama's announcement, the media have advanced numerous myths and falsehoods about Sotomayor. In some cases, the media assert the falsehoods themselves; in others, they report unchallenged the claims of others.

The report suggests that in addition to evaluating these claims on their merits, the media should also consistently report that conservatives were reportedly very clear about their intentions to oppose Obama's nominee, no matter who it was. Their attacks must be assessed in the context of their reported plans to use the confirmation process to, among other things, "help refill depleted coffers and galvanize a movement demoralized by Republican electoral defeats."

As documented in the report, the myths that have emerged or resurfaced since Sotomayor's nomination was announced include:

Sotomayor advocated legislating from the bench
Sotomayor said, "Latina judges are obviously better than white male judges"
Sotomayor's Supreme Court reversal rate is "high"
Liberal judges like Sotomayor are "activist[s]"
Sotomayor was "[s]oft on New Jersey [c]orruption"
New Haven firefighters case shows Sotomayor is an "activist"
Sotomayor lacks the intellect to be an effective justice
Sotomayor is "domineering" and "a bit of a bully"
"Empathy" is code for "liberal activist"
Be sure to read the entire report for a detailed breakdown of the facts dispelling these right-wing myths and falsehoods.

In all, this week, Media Matters released more than 100 research items, blog posts, video clips, and columns surrounding media coverage of the Supreme Court and Sotomayor's nomination.

As the week went on, it became clearer that Sotomayor would be a victim of attacks from conservatives in the media reminiscent of those on Obama:

MSNBC's Pat Buchanan called Sotomayor a "lightweight," "an anti-white, liberal judicial activist." He and his sister Bay both claimed that Sotomayor's nomination was the result of "affirmative action."
Media Matters' Eric Boehlert went head-to-head with former Rep. Tom Tancredo on CNN over the context of Sotomayor's past comments. During the segment, Tancredo claimed Sotomayor was a member of the "Latino KKK," earning the right-wing former congressman the mocking of MSNBC's Rachel Maddow.
Jeffrey Kuhner, filling in for right-wing radio host Michael Savage, claimed Sotomayor believes "that America is a racist, sexist, homophobic and misogynist society."
Fox News' Glenn Beck said Sotomayor's appointment was more evidence of a Marxist "hostile takeover" of the United States. He also called her a "racist," who "is not that bright" and "divisive."
Savage described Sotomayor as "Chairman O's pick for the Supreme Court" and a "radical activist."
Radio host and conservative movement leader Rush Limbaugh called Sotomayor "an angry woman," "bigot," and "racist."
Mark Krikorian, over at the National Review Online, had an issue with the pronunciation of Sotomayor's name, writing that "it sticks in my craw."
Fox News' Sean Hannity claimed Obama turned "his back on Mainstream America" by nominating "the most divisive nominee possible," a "radical."
Politico's Mike Allen and Jonathan Martin initially reported that Sotomayor was "a Latina single mother" despite the fact that Sotomayor has no children.
If media coverage of week one of the Sotomayor nomination is any indication, it's going to be a long, hot summer. Fear not, though -- Media Matters will be there through it all.

Other major stories this week:

Is there something in the water at Fox Nation?

Back in March, while promoting its newly launched website, The link appears to be going to the domain, but is really going to the domain, Fox News ran advertisements telling viewers that "[i]t's time to say 'no' to biased media and 'yes' to fair play and free speech." In the weeks since the website's launch, Media Matters has documented more than 50 instances where Fox Nation failed to come close to the bias-free, "fair play" standard set out by Fox News.

This week has been particularly awful. Case in point:

Fox Nation is just asking: "Sotomayor Argued Death Penalty Is Racist... Is She?"
With picture of burning WTC, Fox Nation wonders if Obama has "Pre-9/11 Mindset"
Fox Nation: "Need Another Tea Party? National Sales Tax 'on the Table' "
Fox Nation baselessly claims Sotomayor "Wants to Ban Guns"
Fox News still trafficking in birth certificate theories
Continuing to be "bias"-free, Fox Nation calls Obama "Cocky Barack"
Be sure to check out the Media Matters archive on Free Republic ... er, Fox Nation.

Rush Limbaugh's Failure-palooza

By now, everybody watching the Obama administration remembers Rush Limbaugh's well wishes for the new president the day before his inauguration -- that's when El Rushbo said, "I hope Obama fails." The comment picked up a head of steam in the press, provoking Limbaugh to elaborate two days later, saying, "We are being told that we have to hope he succeeds, that we have to bend over, grab the ankles ... because his father was black." A month later, Rush let us all in on "the dirty little secret," as he described it, that "every Republican in this country wants Obama to fail, but none of them have the guts to say so; I am willing to say it."

Since then, Rush has been quick to wish failure on all kinds of things. For example, back in February, Limbaugh said, "I want the stimulus package to fail." In March, he strangely compared his hope for Obama's failure to a Steelers fan wanting the Cardinals' QB to fail in the Super Bowl. The same month, he seemed to offer up some reverse psychology, claiming, "If there's anybody who wants America as it was founded to fail, it's Barack Obama."

And so, Rush Limbaugh's failure-palooza marched on this week as news of Obama's selection of Sotomayor for a seat on the Supreme Court was reported. Without skipping a beat, Limbaugh said of the president's nominee: "Do I want her to fail? Yeah."

To give you an idea of how completely warped Rush's thinking is, two days after his Sotomayor "fail" comments, Limbaugh claimed, "This country is failing because President Obama is succeeding."

So, was it Sasquatch or Chupacabra driving the Chrysler?

Another week, another bizarre conspiracy theory from the right. Eric Boehlert brings us the story of the budding Obama scandal that's been hatched this week within the right-wing blogosphere, which has all the hallmarks of previous failed Obama conspiracy theories. The latest centers on the idea that Obama's White House, as part of the automaker's restructuring, personally selected which Chrysler dealership would be closed. Not only that, but the Obama White House punished dealerships whose owners gave campaign contributions to Republicans. The horror!

Conservative bloggers excitedly claim that their research proves a massive conspiracy's afoot. Their research? A laundry list of names of dealers who have indeed given money to the GOP and have indeed been closed down as part of the GM restructuring. So why doesn't that prove Obama has a hit list? First, because nearly 800 dealerships are being closed down, yet bloggers detail campaign contributions for less than 10 percent of those dealership owners. Second, all the bloggers actually prove is that a lot of dealership owners are Republicans. Does that surprise anyone?

Statistician Nate Silver demolishes the theory with actual research, noting, "It shouldn't be any surprise, by the way, that car dealers tend to vote -- and donate -- Republican. They are usually male, they are usually older (you don't own an auto dealership in your 20s), and they have obvious reasons to be pro-business, pro-tax cut, anti-green energy and anti-labor. Car dealerships need quite a bit of space and will tend to be located in suburban or rural areas. I can't think of too many other occupations that are more natural fits for the Republican Party."