Media Reality Check: Networks Pretend Kagan's Mind Is a Mystery

May 11th, 2010 4:23 PM

When George W. Bush nominated judges John Roberts and Samuel Alito for the Supreme Court, the networks routinely described them as "conservative" and even "very conservative" and "ultraconservative." Last year they applied more “conservative” tags to Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor's critics than “liberal” labels to her.

But the early stories on President Obama’s nomination of Elena Kagan routinely avoided describing her as a liberal. In six evening news stories and eight morning news segments since her official press conference on Monday morning, the broadcast networks have employed only one liberal label, on CBS. ABC and NBC offered none.

On Monday’s Evening News, CBS's Jan Crawford declared "her career has put her solidly on the left," but contended "she will have significant conservative support among academics and lawyers" and warned "that support alarms some liberals."

But on Tuesday’s Early Show, CBS insisted on pushing the notion that Kagan was a closet moderate. Co-host Harry Smith told Vice President Biden: "Liberals feel let down because she would be filling a seat left by John Paul Stevens, they don't feel like she's enough – has enough gravitas to fill his shoes."

Co-host Maggie Rodriguez argued with Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions: "When she worked for the Clinton administration, Ms. Kagan asked the President to support a ban on all abortions of viable fetuses except when the mother's health was at risk. And some analysts have used that example to show that she may actually shift the court to the right, compared with Justice Stevens."

Rodriguez seriously exaggerated Kagan’s advice in 1997 to support a Tom Daschle compromise on a proposed ban on the gruesome partial-birth abortion procedure – which is narrower and not synonymous with all late-term abortions. Sen. Sessions did insist on ABC "We know she is a very active, political Democrat, on the left side of the Democratic Party."

The networks’ intentional confusion of Kagan’s political ideology stands in stark contrast with the Bush years. While ABC had no label for Kagan, on ABC's Good Morning America on Halloween 2005, Jessica Yellin (now with CNN) issued five scary conservative labels in under 50 seconds, describing Alito as someone who will please Bush's "conservative base," has "established conservative credentials," is "a law and order conservative," who is "in the mold of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia" and whose "writing is so similar to the conservative justice's, he's sometimes nicknamed 'Scalito.'"

ABC, CBS, and NBC aggressively ignored documentary evidence that Kagan was a fervent liberal. On the Fox News Channel, reporter Shannon Bream quoted liberals downplaying her ideology, but also noted "Kagan wrote an opinion piece for the student newspaper saying she, quote, ‘absorbed liberal principles early,’ and went on to lament the success of those she called, quote, ‘anonymous but Moral Majority-backed avengers of innocent life.’ Kagan also said she looked forward to a time when a, quote, ‘more leftist left will once again come to the fore.’"