In the past three months, the major media have repeatedly hammered away at the theme that Judge Samuel Alito Jr. would "shift the Supreme Court to the right" if he replaced retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
According to Lexis/Nexis, major newspapers have used the phrase "shift the court" 36 times in their Alito coverage. They have referred to the "balance of the court" 32 times and "the court's balance" another 15. "Shift to the right" accounted for another 18 mentions.
Major radio and television programs indexed by Lexis/Nexis have used those phrases 63 times. CNN told viewers that Alito would "tilt the balance of the court" twice on the day President Bush nominated him. NPR's first-day story on "Morning Edition" was headlined "Alito could move court dramatically to the right.".... [N]ote the contrast to 1993, when President Bill Clinton nominated the liberal Ginsburg to replace conservative White. White had dissented from the landmark decisions on abortion rights in Roe v. Wade and on criminal procedure in the Miranda case, and he had written the majority opinion upholding sodomy laws in Bowers v. Hardwick. Obviously his replacement by the former general counsel of the ACLU was going to "move the court dramatically to the left."
So did the media report Ginsburg's nomination that way? Not on your life.
Not a single major newspaper used the phrases "shift the court," "shift to the left," or "balance of the court" in the six weeks between Clinton's nomination and the Senate's ratification of Ginsburg. Only one story in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer mentioned the "court's balance," and that writer thought that Ginsburg would move a "far right" court "toward the center."
The only network broadcast to use any of those phrases was an NPR interview in which liberal law professor Paul Rothstein of Georgetown University said that Ginsburg might offer a "subtle change...a nuance" in "the balance of the court" because she would line up with Justice O'Connor in the center.
No one thought that some momentary balance on the Court had to be preserved when a justice retired or that it was inappropriate to shift the ideological makeup of the Court. ...
For another striking contrast, take a look at The Washington Post's respective headlines on the days the two judges were nominated. For Ginsburg:
"Judge Ruth Ginsburg Named to High Court; Clinton's Unexpected Choice Is Women's Rights Pioneer"
"A Mentor, Role Model and Heroine of Feminist Lawyers"
"Nominee's Philosophy Seen Strengthening the Center"
"Alito Nomination Sets Stage for Ideological Battle; Bush's Court Pick Is Appeals Judge with Record of Conservative Rulings"
"With a Pick from the Right, Bush Looks to Rally GOP in Tough Times"
"Comparisons to Scalia, But Also to Roberts"
"Judge Participated in 2002 Vanguard Case Despite Promise to Recuse," and "Alito Leans Right Where O'Connor Swung Left"
Despite the Post's claim that Ginsburg was a centrist, she has in fact been a consistently liberal vote on the Supreme Court. Research by Richard J. Timpone, director of the Political Research Laboratory at Ohio State, finds that she is the most liberal member of the Court on economic issues and virtually tied with Justices John Paul Stevens and Steven Breyer on civil liberties.
The issue is not Ginsburg's record, but the media's notion that the Supreme Court exists in some sort of delicate balance which will be upset by the introduction of a conservative justice. The Senate has every right to consider whether Judge Alito will be too conservative, too accommodating to executive power, or too dismissive of discrimination claims. But the Supreme Court's current ideological makeup is not divinely ordained, and we should stop wringing our hands over whether he will "shift the court" in some direction.
Is this an example of media bias? I would say so.
This, in fact, is the way in which liberal media bias typical plays itself out. Not ignoring or even defending a possible domestic surveillance program under Clinton while aggressively pursuing evidence of a supposedly similar program under the Bush administration (a scoop is a scoop no matter whose side you're on), but acting on the unspoken assumption that a shift in the ideological makeup of the Supreme Court is something to worry about if it's a shift to the right.
Regardless of where one stands on the Alito nomination, David Boaz has an excellent point.