Supreme Court battle must be kept in perspective


There hasn't been a new Supreme Court judge nominated for 11 years, and, given the recent hullabaloo over Democrats in the Senate blocking votes on Bush appellate court nominations and the pivotal role of retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in many important decisions, it isn't surprising that an ugly battle over her successor is anticipated.

Newspapers across the nation have been chronicling the early action - conservative and liberal political action groups setting up war rooms, raising money and attacking potential nominees they don't like.

Some readers believe newspapers have, on occasion, crossed the line from analysis to unseemly shouting in stories assessing what is to come. I agree.

"It's apocalypse. Now." started one recent Los Angeles Times article that set the scene for what is expected to be a lively debate.

A number of readers found the headlines and language of an analysis piece that ran on page one of The Sun last Sunday inappropriately provocative.

A very large, 5-column, two-word headline, "Looming Fight," dominated the top of the page. The secondary headline said: "Battles in the culture wars have flared over the part 40 years. Now with a key Supreme Court seat open, some analysts fear a level of bitter conflict that could the turn the country inside out." The text of the highlighted passage was printed in red type.

One Baltimore reader, Richard L. Lelonek, balked at that language. "The nation has been in existence for 229 years, a long time," he wrote in a letter to editor of The Sun. "Now the print media, including The Sun, would have us believe the nation is on the verge of possible extinction because of the vacancy on the Supreme Court and the replacement. Nothing could be further from the truth."

The Sun article had its share of hot language:

"Ruptures over gay marriage, flag burning or displaying the Ten Commandments will feel like mere tremors compared with the cultural quake sure to erupt when the nation's differences become the weapons with which the Supreme Court's future is determined, political analysts say," one paragraph read.

Elsewhere, phrases such as "political ... war of the worlds" and "an end-of-all-times cultural battle" appeared in text and quotations.

The "culture war" story was a legitimate subject for page one analysis. The emotional tensions produced by the pending nomination of a Supreme Court justice are very real. And The Sun's staff, especially national reporter Gail Gibson, has produced a number of other excellent reports on the unfolding story since Justice O'Connor decided to retire.

But I believe newspapers should take care in reporting on the Supreme Court nomination debate and on other contentious national issues to avoid appearing to predict the future with language that makes the intensity of the controversy sound inevitable and makes civil national discourse seem impossible.

Reader Neil Grauer, however, defends the story. "The reporters were just setting down all the rhetoric they received from the partisans from both sides - and they had plenty of material that reflected what the opposing sides clearly consider a potentially apocalyptic judicial appointment," he said.

"The tone of the story was hot, but I believe it reflected the views of a broad range of liberals and conservatives, and it offered perspectives from academics in the fields of history, politics and religion," said national editor Marcia Myers. "While we noted early in the story that this type of battle is unlikely if President Bush chooses a moderate as his nominee, I'm sure we could have underscored that point more clearly."

Indeed, all-out-warfare may well be avoided if Bush picks his friend and attorney general, Alberto R. Gonzales, for the job. Gonzales has been criticized by advocacy groups on both the right and the left. But Democrats view him as a more reasonable choice than other likely Bush candidates, and the religious conservatives who oppose Gonzales are unlikely to prevail if he is the president's choice.

As The Sun's Julie Hirschfeld-Davis and others have reported, President Bush has denounced the "money-raising groups" for engaging in heated rhetoric about potential nominees.

He was referring specifically to Gonzales but his remarks could also be interpreted as a commentary on the potential for all-out political war that has been prominently noted in the media. An ugly public battle over the next justice is something that Bush would just as soon avoid.

Nonetheless, the president is clearly taking steps to ready for a battle if it develops. A veteran and tough Republican strategist, Ed Gillespie, will coordinate the nomination process for the White House, and former GOP senator and current TV actor Fred Thompson will guide the eventual nominee through the Senate hearings.

At this point, trying to predict the future with "could turn the country inside out" phraseology in headlines and articles is precarious, even if the reporting accurately describes the ideological and political debate.

The high decibel level of those arguments and the rhetorical excesses of their advocates need to be kept in perspective by the press. Who becomes the next Supreme Court justice is extremely important, but the outcome is not likely to be of apocalyptic proportions.

Paul Moore's column appears on Sundays.

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