1/13/2006

press gets an F on Alito hearings

This morning on the morning news/talkshows there was sort of a wrap-up on the Alito hearings. The networks utterly failed to give the hearings any serious coverage. They are the ones who made Alito's wife's outburst the big moment, and in doing so undermined any serious discussion of the issues involved.

This morning the big question was: did the Democrats behave badly? Were they too strident? Were they insensitive? Were they rude? These are Entertainment Tonight type questions, the human-interest angle. But history will not be concerned one whit about Madam Alito's nervous condition and hurt feelings. The real issues had to do with Alito's record, his affable but evasive manner, his views on privacy, executive power, and so on.

The thing that's amazing about it is how brazenly, even proudly reckless and irresponsible the press has been in taking an incident cynically exploited for political gain and publicizing it for Republicans. Soon after the scene, George Stephanopoulos was grinning ear-to-ear reporting it. It was "the defining moment." But the Washington Press is not really all that interested in policy that will influence people's lives outside the beltway. They're on the lookout for intrigue. They're looking to dish. And so a tearful Madam Alito was on the front page of newspapers, and the debate turned to questions of propriety and etiquette rather than jurisprudence and the candidate's qualifications and views. Which was a coup for his sponsors, who don't want a serious discussion of the latter.

It was really a clear case of chasing a trivial aspect of an historical hearing, and forcing it front and center, and playing into the hands of partisan politicians in doing so. The press acts as if it's a tough critic of itself--that was the essence of the flap about the recent mine tragedy--but then when the opportunity to prove it comes, they fail the public every time. There may be mea culpas at some point, a pundit or two may ask, did we do the Alito hearings justice? or were we led down the garden path once again? But it always comes too late.

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