Character Assassination, Village-Style
The Swift-Boating of Sonia Sotomayor has really been an object lesson for how the Village treats people it decides not to like for whatever reason. Jeffrey Rosen at The New Republic decided to write a gossipy hit piece based on anonymous sources that was immediately taken up by conservatives looking to torpedo a top Obama Supreme Court possibility, and set impressions among official Washington. Though other news outlets were able to find named sources to praise Sotomayor, the characterization made by Rosen's article clearly provided those inclined to oppose Obama with a rationale. After lots of criticism from the blogosphere, which Rosen wouldn't have dealt with in past years, when he would just be able to inject a hit piece into the DC bloodstream, he had to offer an apologia, where he blames the headline writer for creating a misimpression.
Many people have mischaracterized my argument, and I can understand why. The headline--"The Case Against Sotomayor"--promised something much stronger than I intended to deliver. As soon as the piece was published, I regretted the headline, which I hadn't seen in advance. The piece was not meant to be a definitive "case against" Judge Sotomayor's candidacy. It was intended to convey questions about her judicial temperament that sources had expressed to me in the preceding weeks. That's why I concluded the piece not by suggesting that Sotomayor was unqualified for the Supreme Court, but by suggesting that "given the stakes, the president should obviously satisfy himself that he has a complete picture before taking a gamble."
I would definitely blame the headline writer for the parts of the piece where Rosen calls Sotomayor "not that smart" and "not the brainiest." How could that headline have steered us wrong?
Then Rosen defends his anonymous sources by pointing to the Almanac of the Federal Judiciary item on Sotomayor, again picking out a few negative comments despite the line "most of lawyers interviewed said Sotomayor has good legal ability." He defends the line in the original piece where he says that he hasn't read enough of Sotomayor's opinions to make an informed judgment (really) by claiming no, he had read enough, and found them "good but not great."
Quite a bit of the other "evidence" for Sotomayor's opinion in the piece comes out just wrong. Rosen's assertion that a footnote from a "senior judge on the Second Circuit" was misleading, but a law professor pretty conclusively argues that the footnote says just the opposite. Rosen had little to say in his defense - "there's more than one way to read that footnote," he claims. That's just not true. Rosen cropped the comment of one of the few named sources in the article to make Judge Jose Cabranes, who called Sotomayor "tough and tenacious and also smart" in the original quote, seem like a critic.
Glennzilla sums this all up:
What really happened here is now manifest -- and typical. A couple of Rosen's secret friends don't like Sonia Sotomayor and called him to encourage him to smear her in the pages of The New Republic. Rather than do the work to determine if these "questions" about her abilities had merit -- by, say, conducting a thorough survey of her key judicial opinions the way a conscientious law professor might -- he instead set out dutifully to undertake the mission assigned to him by these "eminent legal scholars" by calling the people they handpicked for him, who then eagerly attacked Sotomayor. Rosen then mindlessly wrote it all down -- including facts that were either false (the footnote) or highly distorted (Judge Cabranes' New York Times statement about Sotomayor, which was clearly a compliment, not a criticism), and then sent it to TNR, which slapped a provocative and (by Rosen's account) misleading headline on it and then happily published it. That Rosen himself was a chief champion of John Roberts, and had already expressed concerns that Obama might take diversity into account when appointing someone to the Supreme Court, undoubtedly made Rosen more than happy to be chosen to carry out this dirty task against someone who is most assuredly not part of his circle.
In other words, Rosen did what the modern journalist of the Respectable Intellectual Center does by definition: he wrote down what Serious People told him to say, agreed to protect their identity, and then published their very purposeful chatter without doing any real work to verify, investigate or scrutinize it. As a result, a woman who spent the last four decades of her life using her talents and intellect and working extremely hard to reach amazing heights in the face of great obstacles is now widely viewed as an intellectually deficient, stunted, egotistical affirmative-action beneficiary who has no business being on the Supreme Court -- all thanks to the slimy work of Jeffrey Rosen, his cowardly friends of the Respectable Intellectual Center, and The New Republic.
John Cole has some more thoughts, noting that Rosen irreparably harmed Sotomayor's reputation and changed her life, all because his friends wanted to stop her career rise. The "white man's burden" argument picked up by the more subtle parts of the Village media complex is just an recapitulation of Rosen's story, making the snap judgment that Sotomayor isn't "deserving" of the appointment, in the way, oh, a white man would be. I'd gather this happens far more than we all think - the Gladys Kravitz gossips in the Village whisper to one another about such-and-such, whether because of jealousy or backstabbing or whatever, then find enough anonymous sources to confirm the storyline and enough facts they can twist to back it up. And the target gets smeared in enough high places to set that storyline in concrete, and wherever he or she walks in Washington, they are subjected to disapproving stares and the shaking of heads. Somewhere in the Village, there's a list of those on the inside and those on the outside, and the insiders guard their turf in the most zealous, vindictive way possible.
I didn't know much of Sotomayor before this week, but I really WANT her to get the appointment now. She has the right enemies.
...The NYT Ed Board hit back at this pretty hard today.
Never mind that President Obama has not even tipped his hand about his choice to replace Justice David Souter on the Supreme Court. It’s never too early, it appears, to start the character assassination, especially against one possible candidate, Judge Sonia Sotomayor [...]
Supreme Court vacancies have long been political fights, sometimes intense ones, but generally, they begin when a candidate is picked. This time, the attacks have already begun, many aimed at Judge Sotomayor and beyond the pale of reasonable debate. She is being called insufficiently intellectual despite her stellar academic credentials. Her temperament is being assailed, generally by anonymous detractors. Online critics have even groused about her weight [...]
The White House has no doubt been reviewing a long list of nominees. When President Obama makes his decision, he should ignore the uninformed and mean-spirited chattering and select the best person for the job.
As Glenn says, the Times could have mentioned Rosen by name, but this remains fitting.