I am not a big Huffington Post reader, but I do pay attention to the blogging of a friend of mine named Mark Joseph, one of those journalism students who went to the dark side and works in Hollywood. MJ just shot off an interesting critique of some of the early U.S. Supreme Court coverage -- especially the stories focusing on the religious beliefs of nominee John Roberts and his wife, Jane. What is unique is that MJ starts far from the court. He begins with the recent leadership transition at the top of the most powerful media institution on the Left Coast -- the Los Angeles Times. What does that have to do with the court wars? Here is a major chunk of MJ's provocative little post:
Reading stories in the L.A. Times on the paper's new editor Dean Baquet and Supreme Court nominee John Roberts, I noticed something about the coverage: The paper is telling me a lot more about Roberts than Baquet.
Apparently it's newsworthy that Roberts' wife was president of the anti-abortion group Feminists For Life. But the reporter profiling the new editor gives me no such insights into Baquet's wife's activities. To what groups does she belong to? The ACLU? The Sierra Club? A pro-life group? You can tell a lot about a man by the groups his wife belongs to.
The Times tells me that Roberts is a conservative, but I read nothing about Baquet's ideological orientation. I read that Roberts is a member of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group, but I read nothing of the groups to which Baquet has belonged to.
Reporters dig up memos at the Reagan Library written by Roberts in the early '80's to help me understand his thought processes and political views, but I read nothing of comparable memos written by Mr. Baquet.
MJ admits that a Supreme Court justice has a much greater national impact than one newspaper editor. But it is true that, as a rule, newspapers do not do a very good job of sharing even small amounts of information about the views of the institutions and the people who run them. Does your newspaper union support abortion rights with chunks of your dues? Mine did.
The Times story about its new editor does give us some interesting personal information, but nothing about his beliefs. Some forms of diversity are more equal than others, it seems.
. . . Baquet was reared in a working-class section of New Orleans by parents who owned a neighborhood Creole restaurant. His promotion will make him the first African American to run a top-level American newspaper.
Baquet attended Columbia University in New York City but never graduated, having been swept up in the excitement of the news business after an internship at the now-defunct New Orleans States-Item. He made his journalistic name in 1988 at the Chicago Tribune as part of a three-person team that won a Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting with stories about corruption in the Chicago City Council.
The Washington Post likewise sticks to the journalistic details. This is not surprising. Journalists are supposed to be able to do their jobs and be fair to people on both sides of hot issues -- such as the legality of abortion on demand. Do we need to dig into their religious beliefs?
Howard Kurtz at the Post did offer this interesting note about John Carroll, the departing editor in Los Angeles. Back in 2003,
Carroll . . . made news that year with a leaked memo that criticized the "apparent bias" of one of his reporters on an abortion story, writing that he wanted to challenge "the perception -- and the occasional reality -- that the Times is a liberal, 'politically correct' newspaper." Like most big-city editors, he has struggled with declining circulation, which dipped 6.5 percent earlier this year, to 908,000.
Well, that's interesting. It sounds like it might have been good to ask the new L.A. editor a few questions about moral and cultural issues.
So, should there be a religious test for journalists? Should there be a religious test for justices?
You probably know where I am going to come down on this -- the more information the better. Let's look for ideological diversity and ask lots of questions, on both sides of these cultural divides.