Are the Media Preparing to Ambush John Roberts?

The big three broadcast networks have been mostly silent during the run-up to the Senate's hearings on Supreme Court nominee John Roberts, with just a handful of evening news stories over the last five weeks. But big papers such as the Washington Post have been busily poring over Roberts' writings, hunting for the legal brief or memo that might put his seemingly-assured confirmation in doubt. No "smoking gun" has emerged, but that hasn't stopped some journalists from trying to tar Roberts as a kooky far right-wing extremist. Recall:

-- On July 20, the day after President Bush announced he'd picked Roberts, ABC's Barbara Walters suggested the judge's Catholicism might be a problem for pro-abortion liberals. "How important to him is his religion?" she wondered on Good Morning America. "Do you think it might affect him as a Supreme Court Justice?"

-- On July 25, ABC's Jessica Yellin tried to make an issue out of Mrs. Roberts. "The spotlight has turned to his wife. Opponents are examining her political activities, and especially her involvement in a group that opposes abortion," Yellin warned on Good Morning America.

-- On August 17, the Associated Press smeared John Roberts' boyhood hometown of Long Beach, Indiana: "Like many towns across America, the exclusive lakefront community where Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. grew up during the racially turbulent 1960s and '70s once banned the sale of homes to nonwhites and Jews." But Roberts was a teenager when he last lived in the town AP denigrated as "insular" and "Mayberry-like."

-- On August 19, the Washington Post tried to cast Roberts as an old-fashioned chauvinist. "Roberts Resisted Women's Rights," claimed the headline over a front-page story. The loaded lead: "Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. consistently opposed legal and legislative attempts to strengthen women's rights during his years as a legal advisor in the Reagan White House, disparaging what he called ‘the purported gender gap' and, at one point, questioning ‘whether encouraging homemakers to become lawyers contributes to the common good.'"

That last line was a lawyer joke, but Roberts' humor was lost on the Post, which demanded a reaction from NOW's Kim Gandy, a leader in the anti-Roberts camp: "‘Oh. Wow. Good heavens,' she said. ‘I find it quite shocking that a young lawyer, as he was at the time, had such neanderthal ideas.'"

-- On August 26, the Post got even smarmier, as reporter Jo Becker built a story around an instance when Roberts, ghost-writing an article for Ronald Reagan, "scratched out the words ‘Civil War' and replaced them with ‘War Between the States.'" Becker found an expert to say some people use that wording "because they believe the Confederacy was right to secede."

So Roberts is a rebel? These pre-confirmation potshots could be the opening salvos of a full-scale media war against John Roberts, or they could be just isolated examples of the shabby treatment that conservatives regularly get from the so-called mainstream media. My own guess is that the networks are going to maintain their focus on the truly dire situation in New Orleans and the Mississippi coastline, and not go out of their way to fuel whatever political fights start up next week. We'll find out next week.

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