|January 16, 2006|
After Alito: What Happened? What Now?
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
New York, January 15: “It was a good week for Republicans,” chuckled the New York Times house conservative David Books with a s-hit eating grin as he welcomed the likely confirmation of Judge Samuel Alito Jr. Friday night on the PBS News Hour. His “liberal” debating partner Mark Shields was there to agree in yet another PBS program cleaving to the right while giving the appearance of being in the center.
The Judge handled himself well, said Brooks. He was not the angry ideologue pictured by the Democrats.
Shields agreed expressing admiration for his “judicial temperament.”
And so, in media outlet after media outlet, another Administration-supporting consensus was reached, in part, because of they way media framed the story.
They had bought and sold the pre-hearing hype that this would be the ultimate ideological “showdown” like some final round of Wrestle Mania. When Alito was left standing after what was falsely pictured as his race through a gauntlet, he was proclaimed a winner.
THE DEMOCRATS WERE PREDICTABLE
The Democrats were predictable, baiting Alito, and trying to use comments he made in the 1980’s as well as his dense judicial record against him. Like many Generals, they were fighting the last war—the one against Court nominee Robert Bork who took on his attackers but whose arrogance and argumentative approach did him in.
Significantly, when Bork himself was asked to comment on Alito’s well choreographed but evasive performance, he said, “The object nowadays is to get confirmed, People will say pretty much -- or avoid saying pretty much in order to get confirmed.”
Didn’t the Democrats realize that the Republicans would anticipate their knee-jerk approach, and then neutralize its dated and poorly executed confrontation strategy? Why weren’t they on alert for dirty tricks like the phony crying spell by Alito’s wife publicized by the very firm that promoted the Swift Boat veterans who smeared John Kerry?
What world were they in? Weren’t they aware that Alito would be well coached (including by Senator Graham, a member of their own Committee), trained not to play to type and then to conceal more than reveal? He followed the lead of Judge Roberts by saying as little as possible and acting as thoughtful and reasonable as he could.
What the Republicans and their legions of spinners and echo chamber message disseminators understood—and the Democrats and many activists do not---is the hearings themselves are not really about issues, but impressions, not about politics but personalities, not about reality but perception.
A MEDIA EXERCISE
They are a show and tell exercise put on for the media and through the media. They have become exercises in calculated denial and avoidance.
"Senate hearings on Supreme Court nominees are close to the point of having no point," argues Martin Flaherty, a professor of constitutional law and history at Fordham Law School.” The nominees say nothing, and the Senate doesn't make them say anything. It was evident in the Roberts hearings [for chief justice] but is reaching absurd levels with Alito."
Writing in the Baltimore Sun, Stephen Kiehl and Abigail Tucker dissect the GOP strategy. They call it “Practicing the art of saying little”
“Alito has been practicing, with varying degrees of success, the art of the non-answer answer,” they explained. “Employed by politicians, business executives and others facing public scrutiny, the non-answer has become particularly routine to those seeking judicial confirmation since 1987.”
Despite this reality, many bloggers and others on the left urged the Senators to focus on the details, play it tough (but not necessarily smart). They were peeved when the Senators didn’t crucify him. Being hostile and aggressive on small points can only be effective when you also recognize how the nature of the game has changed.
THE HEARINGS WERE A FARCE
With all their erudition, research and preening for the cameras, the Democratic Senators never laid a glove on Alito in an 18-hour ordeal. Rather than excite the public and incite outrage, they tuned out the audience by turning the hearing into a hard-to-follow graduate seminar in legal philosophy understood mostly by lawyers. They even bored themselves. Senator Biden asked an eleven minute question. Senator Leahy said he had to stop himself from snoring.
Yes its true, many important questions went unasked and most went unanswered. Alito was so vague that he wouldn’t even endorse his own state’s favorite son, Bruce Springsteen. When asked if he was a fan of the progressive rocker he would only say, “I am to some degree, yes.” May I ask, “To what degree?” (I can’t imagine Sam with fist in air singing “Born to Run.”)
The Democrats third degree failed, in large part, because the big media did not help the public understand the issues or do much digging on their own. A study of press coverage by the Progress Center found inaccurate reporting and virtually no on-air commentary by progressives. Alito, who couldn’t remember what he didn’t want to remember was never really taken to task. He was taken instead at face value. His references to having an “open mind” were given a pass.
If we had a better media we would not be facing the Bush takeover of the Supreme Court.
So what now? On Saturday President Bush called on the Senate to confirm him quickly, echoing the media consensus claiming the judge approached the law in a "thoughtful, fair, and open-minded way" and would not impose his personal views. The Senate is not expected to vote on the Alito nomination for about two weeks but a stop Alito filibuster is unlikely. This pathetic Judge seems a shoo-in. Nevertheless, some on the anti-Alito left are blowing their bugles and cranking up the volume of their rhetoric. One writes:
“What team every won by deciding at the end of the first quarter that it wasn't worth playing the rest of the game because they were already behind? Do you not understand that WE are the majority? Turn off your cable television. Pay no attention to corporate media propagandists who relentlessly sell you on your own defeatism… Dedicate your lives for the next two weeks to saving our country. Dedicate your lives to getting as many people as possible to call their senators.”
By all means, let your senators know how you feel but also understand that THEY control the Senate. And THEY control media. Understand that Democrats and their supporters have to do a better job of using media, not just focusing on beltway events. They have to rebuild the base for progressive politics just as the GOP built its base. That will take grass roots organizing, a more sophisticated communications strategy and new media platforms.
The Senators we have—including the three GOP-lite Democrats who voted for John--“he’s so good lucking and All-American”--Roberts—reflect the compromised state of the party and the weakness of its approach. It can’t win because it has already lost—its values, vision, unity and passion.
More than lobbying is needed to resuscitate its corpse and renew our democracy. Media reform must become part of the equation.
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
News Dissector Danny Schechter edits Mediachannel.org. His new books are “The Death of the Media” and “When News Lies: Media Complicity and the Iraq War.” See newsdissector.org/store.htm. Comments to email@example.com
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