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Daily Howler: We were struck by the sorry, crabbed way the Post profiled Sotomayor
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SEND IN THE CRABS! We were struck by the sorry, crabbed way the Post profiled Sotomayor: // link // print // previous // next //

SEND IN THE CRABS: In large part, journalism is a culture. Major news orgs select certain types of people to fill their prominent jobs. The outlook—the culture—of these people then shapes your nation’s discourse.

In the past week, the Washington Post has seemed determined to display the emptiness of its culture. Today, we were struck by the way the Post went about the task of profiling Sonia Sotomayor.

We started with the predictable blather of the Post’s “empty lad,” Dana Milbank. As the sea rushes toward the shore, Milbank turned—as swallows turn toward Capistrano—to tales of the nominee’s lack of brains and unfortunate bossy demeanor. Some have said these things in portraits, Milbank predictably said:

MILBANK (5/27/09): Some thought Obama would nominate Judge Diane Wood or Solicitor General Elena Kagan—big brains who could serve as a counterweight to the court's conservative philosophers. Others expected a well-known politician such as Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

In selecting Sotomayor, Obama opted for biography over brain. As a legal mind, Sotomayor is described in portraits as competent, but no Louis Brandeis. Nor is Sotomayor, often described as an abrasive jurist, likely to be the next Earl Warren. But her bio is quite a hit. In Spanish, her surname can be translated as "big thicket”—and that's just where Republicans could find themselves if they oppose this up-from-poverty Latina.

In many portraits, Sotomayor has been described differently, of course. But Milbank ran in the wind of Jeffrey Rosen. Translating just a bit creatively: Our kinds of people have big brains. Their kind is bossy—and Spanish.

Is the Post a bit kerflubbled by Sotomayor’s puzzling ethnicity? Consider the paper’s formal profile of the nominee. The profile appears on this morning’s front page, written by Amy Goldstein.

Presumably, Goldstein can’t be blamed for the profile’s focus. Presumably, the focus was assigned by an editor. But on the front page of the New York Times, Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes a profile of Sotomayor which treats the nominee as a full person (click here). By way of contrast, the Post’s sole formal profile, written by Goldstein, bears this headline: ETHNIC IDENTITY.

At the Post, Sotomayor’s ethnic identity isn’t part of her being; at the Post, it’s all she wrote. The Times presents a much wider focus; Goldstein offers a crabbed, unflattering portrait which considers Sotomayor in one headlined way. For starters, consider the way these dueling profiles start:

Stolberg, New York Times: She was “a child with dreams,” as she once said, the little girl who learned at 8 that she had diabetes, who lost her father when she was 9, who devoured Nancy Drew books and spent Saturday nights playing bingo, marking the cards with chickpeas, in the squat red brick housing projects of the East Bronx.

Goldstein, Washington Post: A few months shy of her 10th anniversary on the federal bench, Sonia Sotomayor flew to a law conference across the country from her native New York to give a speech that explored her ethnic identity and her role as a judge in strikingly personal terms.

There’s nothing “wrong” with exploring Sotomayor’s “ethnic identity,” of course. Stolberg’s profile explores that theme too. But in the Times, Sotomayor is a person who is also Hispanic. In the Post’s formal profile, Sotomayor’s ethnicity is the headlined focus. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Goldstein’s focus on ethnicity features a peculiarly trivial, unflattering selection of anecdotes and recollections.

To Milbank, Sotomayor is bossy and lacking in brains. Goldstein doesn’t do a lot better. Before long, we’re being told that Sotomayor “serves queso blanco, a Spanish white-cheese dish, at lunches with her law clerks in her chambers.” Soon, Goldstein is oddly picking and choosing events from the early years:

GOLDSTEIN (5/27/09): As a teenager, she commuted about five miles to the Catholic Cardinal Spellman High School—at the time a middle-class bastion, where boys wore ties and girls wore plaid skirts and relatively few students were minorities. Hers was the first co-educational class. She was elected to the student Senate and was a member of the forensics team, memorizing speeches to be delivered before panels of judges. From early in high school, she talked of becoming a litigator. "In her mind it was speaking up for those who couldn't speak for themselves, going to court," Sotolongo recalled.

At Princeton, there were no more than several dozen black and Latino students when she entered. A history major, she studied hard, earned stellar grades and was so understated that some of her friends learned that she had won the premier undergraduate academic award, the Pyne Prize, by reading about it in the student newspaper.

She was active in Latino student affairs but not a bomb-thrower. Next to her Princeton yearbook photo, she chose a quote from Norman Thomas, a prominent socialist who ran for president six times: "I am not a champion of lost causes, but of causes not yet won.”

Goldstein tells us that Sotomayor “was elected to the student Senate” at Spellman, but forgets to say she was valedictorian of that first coed class. (We’re assuming this long-time claim is accurate. Stolberg repeats it in the Times.) In the Times, Stolberg actually tells us what “Latino student affairs” were like at Princeton when Sotomayor was a student. Goldstein is content to assure the world that the lady “wasn’t a bomb-thrower”—a sadly tone-deaf formulation. But then, Goldstein has a strikingly narrow range of interest in the lady’s behavior:

GOLDSTEIN (continuing directly): She entered Yale Law School and succeeded there as well. As an editor of the Yale Law Journal, she published what was called a “note” that explored the possibility of statehood for Puerto Rico—“not a topic that was much in discussion at Yale Law School," recalled a classmate, Martha L. Minow, now a law professor at Harvard. The note, Minow recalled, examined the effect statehood might have on Puerto Rico's mineral rights, without taking a side on the volatile statehood issue itself.

In her third year of law school, Sotomayor lodged a formal complaint against a Washington law firm that she alleged had asked her discriminatory questions at a recruiting dinner. The firm issued an apology.

According to the Post, Sotomayor did two things in her three years at Yale; she published “a note” about Puerto Rican statehood, and she filed a complaint that alleged discrimination. Before long, Goldstein marvels rather dumbly again about the ways of those people:

GOLDSTEIN: Julia Tarver Mason, who clerked for Sotomayor as a federal district judge in 1996, described her as a "legal purist" who feels strongly about upholding legal precedents when she can find them in the case law. But Mason said Sotomayor's ethnicity "has shaped her values in profound ways.”

She can sometimes be sensitive about it. John W. Fried, Sotomayor's first supervisor in the Manhattan prosecutor's office, said she gently corrected him when he mispronounced her name so that it sounded more anglicized.

Laura Murray Tjan, who clerked for Sotomayor on the 2nd Circuit in 1999, said the judge stayed in touch with the legal community in Puerto Rico, vacationed there and had numerous Latino friends. Murray said Sotomayor was not influenced by ideology and rigorously compelled her clerks to follow legal precedents. Several clerks described her as exacting and a perfectionist, sending back briefs to correct spelling and punctuation errors.

A close reader could say that Goldstein’s “but” is the most intriguing word in that passage. But Goldstein quickly moves to more serious stuff: Sotomayor once corrected someone who mispronounced her name! And darlings! Oh Our God! When she isn’t focused on tedious spelling corrections, she has numerous Latino friends!

Stolberg’s profile in the Times is much longer than Goldstein’s. (4887 words versus 1429.) In fairness, this gives Stolberg a chance to flesh out a much fuller portrait of Sotomayor. On the other hand: Given the brevity of her piece, Goldstein wastes a striking amount of time on the sorts of silly trivia to which her paper’s assassins have often turned, in the past twenty years, when “defining” targeted pols. Members of many ethnic groups have come to New York with pride in their heritage—with love for their parents, with respect for their values, with respect for their parents’ names. Members of many ethnic groups have “gently corrected” mispronunciation of these names—and continue to do so today.

Goldstein had only 1400 words—and she decided to include this incident. We’ll remind you of one feature the journalistic/political disasters of the past twenty years: When Post writers have included such trivia in their profiles, they’ve often done so to “define” targets. In our view, readers should always check their wallets when such trivial matters appear.

Goldstein ends with a recollection from one of Sotomayor’s high school classmates. In this recollection, we leave the world of silly trivia and approach a larger human dimension. What kind of person is Sotomayor? Her at THE HOWLER, we have no idea. But Goldstein burned a lot of time with a lot of silly, crabbed “ethnic” trivia. What kind of person is Sotomayor? As the game ends, we hear this:

GOLDSTEIN: Jeri Faulkner was a freshman of Caribbean descent at Cardinal Spellman when Sotomayor was a senior, and she remembers the older girl as a role model for the few minority students. "I can see her sitting in the cafeteria at a table, leading and being part of discussion, all animated," said Faulkner, now a dean of students at the school. “Sonia burst out of boxes and was never limited by where she came from.”

Soon, this role model would be correcting spelling errors and mispronunciations and maintaining numerous Latino friends.

Faulkner suggests a larger story, a story Stolberg explores. By the way: Why do people of certain ethnicities feel they’re constantly bumping on “limits?” Why do their lives never become fully “post-ethnic?” Perhaps for this reason: No matter how these people may soar, they keep encountering silly piffle of the type littered through Goldstein’s profile.

This is the Post’s formal front-page profile. It limits itself to one primary focus, and takes a crabbed view when it does.

Direct from the hiss-spit files: Would the following paragraph be different at all if the highlighted sentence weren’t there? Is it just there for its hiss-spit factor? We don’t know. We’re just asking:

GOLDSTEIN: Robert Morgenthau, a longtime Manhattan district attorney, said he hired Sotomayor directly out of Yale and she rose rapidly, moving from cases of assault and other misdemeanors to the murders then plaguing New York. Morgenthau described her cases as “nothing extraordinary.” In the most prominent, she and another prosecutor won a conviction against the “Tarzan murderer," a man who swung onto the balconies of tenement apartments to rob people and sometimes shoot them.

What did Morgenthau mean by that statement? What would an “extraordinary” case look like? In this profile, we get no idea—but the statement is oddly deflating. That said, it seems that times have changed in New York. Apparently, a murderer who swung onto balconies to rob and shoot people was run-of-the-mill in those days.

Avatar of Post culture: To Milbank, Sotomayor is lacking in brains. Of course, the same silly scribe landed on Gore two years ago for using too many big words in a speech. Yep! Milbank bellowed when Gore used such smartest-kid-in-the-class formulations as “the marketplace of ideas” and “the exchange of goods and services” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/30/07). But the script on Gore was: Thinks he’s sooo smart! The script on Sotomayor is different: Just isn’t brainy enough!

It’s hard to be too dumb for the Post. But Milbank is selling this notion.

To all appearances, this paper plans to sink beneath the waves with this gruesome culture in place. Silly tales get told about targeted pols—by a race of world-class Antoinettes.