FOR INFORMATION, READ THE OPINIONS: Omigod! In todays New York Times, readers actually get some basic info about judicial filibusters. Here is the passage in question:
NEW YORK TIMES (5/10/05): Since 1789, the Senate has rejected nearly 20 percent of all nominees to the Supreme Court, many without an up-or-down vote.Interesting! And which intrepid Times reporter passed on this relevant information? Actually, this didnt appear in a news report; it comes from an op-ed column by George Mitchell, former Dem Senate leader. Mitchells column continues a practice we have often mentioned before. At the Washington Post and the New York Times, you increasingly have to read the editorials or the op-ed columns to get basic information about the basic events of the day.
In 1968 Republican senators used a filibuster to block voting on President Lyndon B. Johnson's nominee for chief justice of the Supreme Court. During the debate, a Republican senator, Robert Griffin, said: "It is important to realize that it has not been unusual for the Senate to indicate its lack of approval for a nomination by just making sure that it never came to a vote on the merits. As I said, 21 nominations to the [Supreme] court have failed to win Senate approval. But only nine of that number were rejected on a direct, up-and-down vote."
Between 1968 and 2001, both parties used filibusters to oppose judicial nominees. In 2000, the last year of Bill Clinton's presidency, Republican senators filibustered two of his nominees to be circuit judges. They also prevented Senate votes on more than 60 of Mr. Clinton's judicial nominees by other means.
Why is Mitchells (slightly-spun) info so relevant? All over cable, all over talk radio, the usual dissemblers have been telling the public that—well, lets listen in on Michael Reagan, disinforming on Hannity & Colmes:
REAGAN (4/13/05): No, it hasn't happened any time before in history. This is the first time in history that a filibuster is being used against nominees.This is the first time in history that a filibuster is being used against nominees. Uh-oh! As Mitchells piece makes clear, that just wasnt true. But so what? All over cable, all over talk radio, the public has actively been disinformed about this matter. Two weeks later, it was Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention doing the honors on Hannity:
Yes, use the filibuster against legislation. It always has been used against legislation. That's a good place to have it. But against nominees is wrong...What's going on is strictly politics.
LAND (4/25/05): The fact is that, in the entire history of our republic, there has never been a filibuster used against an appeals court nominee. And, you know, they talk about how they've confirmed so many of the president's judges. They have not confirmed the appeals court nominees. They have blocked 10. They've filibustered and refused to allow a vote on 10 of his 52 appeals court nominees. That's nearly 20 percent. And in the first 200 plus years of our republic, there was never a filibuster against an appeals court nominee.Oops—that wasnt true either. And this is whats being said on cable, where they actually keep and post transcripts. We can only imagine whats being said in the tribal lands of talk radio, the place where Americas rubes go each day to be played for complete, total fools.
Yes, these matters have been widely discussed—and disinformation has flowed like rain. Mitchell corrects the record in todays opinion column—but it has been almost impossible to learn basic facts from reading the Times news section. Was Johnsons choice for Chief Justice (Abe Fortas) defeated by a Senate filibuster? A Nexis search shows that this has been mentioned exactly once in the Times—in a 272-word report by Sheryl Gay Stolberg on May 1. Yep—if you didnt read that fleeting report, you havent learned that fact in the Times. Nor have you learned this information—information which has only appeared in this Times editorial:
NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (3/6/05): Republican leaders now claim that judicial nominees are entitled to an up-or-down vote. This is rank hypocrisy. When the tables were turned, Republicans filibustered President Bill Clinton's choice for surgeon general, forcing him to choose another. And Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader, who now finds judicial filibusters so offensive, himself joined one against Richard Paez, a Clinton appeals court nominee.Huh! But thats the only mention of Paez which turns up in a Nexis search. If you didnt read that March 6 editorial, you didnt read about Paez in the Times. (Stolberg didnt say that Frist had once taken part in a judicial filibuster.) Of course, you might have seen this on Hannity & Colmes—Lands fuller remarks on this matter:
LAND (4/25/05): And in the first 200 plus years of our republic, there was never a filibuster against an appeals court nominee. This is—this is an outrageous use of minority power in the Senate to block the will of the American people.Oops! Land was wrong about that, too. But so what? Two nights later, Lanny Davis appeared on the show, and he mentioned the Paez filibuster. And uh-oh! Alan Comes added another unwanted fact. So Hannity simply lied to his viewers:
COLMES: Dr. Land, it's Alan Colmes. Thank you for coming on the show. First of all, the judge to which the reverend was referring is Paez and just—Frist voted to do a filibuster for Judge Paez, Richard Paez.
LAND: Not an appeals court nominee. No appeals court nominee.
COLMES (4/27/05): We've got to take a break. And by the way, Richard Paez—that filibuster was signed on to by Bill Frist.Thats not true, either, said Hannity—falsely. So it goes all over cable and talk as the Hannitys lie to the public.
HANNITY: That's not true, either.
COLMES: Thank you very much for being with us, Lanny. And we check in with Greta Van Susteren who's standing with a look at what's coming up at 10:00 Eastern.
Do people deserve to hear real facts? New York Times readers have heard false facts all over the land for the past several months. This morning, they finally get some accurate facts—from an opinion column! But theyve had to search high and low to find those facts in the Times news pages. Richard Paez? Sorry—not mentioned. Abe Fortas? Mentioned just once. Life is easy for a big newspaper when they simply ignore what is happening around them—when they let the fakers of cable and talk make an ongoing joke of our lives.
GETLER GETS IT RIGHT: How should newspapers treat the flood of disinformation which defines modern discourse? This Sunday, ombudsman Michael Getler discussed a related point in the Post. And incomparably, Michael Getler got it right!
At the start of his weekly piece, Getler discussed an important complaint about the Posts coverage of Bush. Quite correctly, readers thought the Post had been giving Bush a free pass on his use of the misleading term, bankrupt. Getler was overly fair to Bush, but he made a key point in the end:
GETLER (5/10/05): Compared with most weeks, this past one was relatively quiet on the complaint front. There were challenges, as there are almost every week, about how the paper handles the Social Security debate. For example, are reporters allowing President Bush to get away with claiming that the system is "on the path to bankruptcy" by 2041, as he said at his April 28 news conference?There is not room in every story to explain this dispute in full, Getler said. But then he made an important point: The Post should make some effort to discuss it every time—in every relevant story. In other words, it isnt enough to explain the point once, then wash the newspapers hands of the matter. Post readers hear the term bankrupt again and again—and no, they dont understand the logic involved here. It needs to be addressed again and again. If people are going to get this stuff straight, it needs to be explained every time.
The next day's stories pointed out that critics say that claim is misleading. Readers say it isn't just critics. It's a fact that the Social Security board of trustees say that in 2041, tax income would still cover 74 percent of the costs of the system. Others say the truth depends on the definition of the word "bankrupt." Some companies continue to do business while in bankruptcy, but the White House points out that bankruptcy means "having insufficient assets to cover one's debts," which, they say, applies to the system in 2042. There is not room in every story to explain this dispute in full. But some effort to keep readers aware of it seems necessary every time.
So too with the simple facts about the history of judicial filibusters. It isnt enough for the New York Times to print just one short piece on the subject. Times readers have heard bogus claims again and again; a short recitation of basic facts would have been appropriate in many stories. This morning, many Times readers were surprised to read that passage in Mitchells opinion column. Theyve heard fake facts all over the land—and the Times, in the greatest tradition, has slumbered, has remained uninvolved.
SOME DAY, SPIN WATCH: Some day, some newspaper will institute a regular feature called Spin Watch. This feature will quote familiar misstatements from the wider discourse, and will then present the relevant facts. Everyone knows that torrents of spin and disinformation currently rule the American discourse. But big news orgs slumber on, unconcerned. Have their readers been disinformed elsewhere? So what! Not their fault, not their concern.
And yes, this has to be done every time, if youre trying to inform your readers. A weekly Spin Watch box about the term bankrupt would be informative beyond all compare.
AND THEN, THERES ALWAYS THE LETTERS: Oh yeah. You can learn basic facts in the Times—if you hunt through all the letters:
NEW YORK TIMES LETTERS (4/26/05):
To the Editor:
I am sick of hearing Bill Frist pontificate on the evils of obstructionist Democrats filbustering the most radical of President Bush's judicial nominees.
Senator Frist now wants to eliminate the filibuster, but five years ago he himself was filibustering one of President Bill Clinton's judicial nominees.
In March 2000, Senator Frist joined with former Senator Bill Smith of New Hampshire to filibuster Judge Richard Paez's nomination to the Ninth Circuit. What is an open-minded American to make of this?
Worcester, Mass., April 24, 2005