Thursday night, as my colleague Brent Baker noted, ABC and NBC fretted that Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor might not adhere to a strict liberal orthodoxy on abortion. NBC reporter Pete Williams said Sotomayor’s views on abortion were a “mystery,” while ABC’s Jan Crawford Greenburg declared “both sides in the contentious debate want to know more.”
On Wednesday’s CBS Evening News, correspondent Wyatt Andrews sounded the same alarm: “Pro-abortion rights groups worried aloud today that the President — who promised an abortion rights nominee — never asked Sotomayor, who is Catholic, where she stands.”
On Thursday’s Today, co-host Matt Lauer opened the show by demanding to know “Where does she stand? Liberal activists voicing concerns over Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor and her stance on abortion. This morning, they’re demanding to know if she’s pro-choice or pro-life — and why President Obama never asked.”
But this isn’t the first time the networks have channeled the worries of liberal pro-abortion groups about a Democratic President’s Supreme Court nominee. Sixteen years ago, President Clinton picked the solidly liberal Ruth Bader Ginsburg, an ardent feminist, to replace Justice Byron White. Ginsburg is probably the most liberal justice on the Court, but the networks conveyed doubts about whether she would really be a solid liberal vote on abortion.
When Ginsburg was picked on June 14, 1993, she was touted as a “moderate” even though she’d worked as a top ACLU official. Then-CBS anchor Dan Rather told viewers of a live mid-afternoon special report that: “Ginsburg is considered a moderate and a supporter of a woman's right to an abortion. Now there’ll be some argument about whether she's considered a moderate or not. That's one of the fulcrum points at which the debate about her nomination no doubt will turn, but she considers herself a moderate, and supporters of her say that she is a moderate.”
That night on the NBC Nightly News, anchor Tom Brokaw painted Ginsburg this way:“President Clinton today announced his choice for the U.S. Supreme Court: a sixty-year-old federal judge, a strong advocate of women’s rights who has become more moderate in her views over the years, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”
Over on the CBS Evening News, correspondent Rita Braver would only call Ginsburg “moderate to liberal,” but she characterized Chief Justice William Rehnquist as an “ultraconservative.”
RITA BRAVER: Sixty-year-old Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been an appeals court judge for 13 years. She's considered moderate to liberal, but today she cited this guide to judging from ultraconservative Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: “A judge is bound to decide each case fairly, in accord with the relevant facts and the applicable law, even when the decision is not,” as he put it, “what the home crowd wants.”
On the abortion issue, ABC anchor Peter Jennings relayed doubts just a few minutes after Clinton announced his choice, telling viewers that “in terms of the Roe v. Wade decision, the National Abortion Rights Action League has weighed in fairly quickly, saying it has some concerns but intends to listen to what Judge Ginsburg has to say.”
The next morning on CBS’s This Morning program, co-host 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?"
And on the June 15 CBS Evening News, correspondent Susan Spencer also saw “questions.” Talking about President Clinton, Spencer relayed: “On the Hill today, his choice of Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the Supreme Court was getting good reviews. She made the rounds for what looks like an easy confirmation. But her writings on abortion have raised some questions.”
The trumped-up fears of the pro-abortion groups were baseless sixteen years ago, and may be just as baseless today. Responding to Lauer’s doubts about Sotomayor on Thursday’s Today, NBC’s Chuck Todd was the only correspondent to suggest a cynical motive: “It looks like this could be potentially just a straw man by abortion rights groups who are concerned that they're not gonna be able to have a Supreme Court nomination to raise money on.”
Of course, network coverage that indulges left-wing worries about a liberal President’s Supreme Court choice means even less time for the far more likely concerns of pro-life groups that Sotomayor will be a reliable vote to perpetuate the liberal status quo of abortion on demand.