A “wise Latina” and a son of immigrants: Comparing newspaper coverage of Sonia Sotomayor and Samuel Alito
Tracy Everbach, Ph.D.
University of North Texas
Mayborn School of Journalism
1155 Union Circle #311460
Denton, Texas 76203-5017
This research paper compares coverage of the U.S. Senate Judiciary hearings for Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayor in two leading United States newspapers, The New York Times and the Washington Post. The qualitative textual analysis examines news frames employed by the two papers and finds that they focused on the horserace, the nominees’ personalities, their ethnicity and gender roles. The study concludes that the newspaper coverage failed to provide much useful information to the public about how the nominees would perform on the court, instead focusing on the politics of the hearings. It also concludes that coverage focused heavily on Sotomayor’s ethnicity but paid scant attention to Alito’s and that the newspapers cast Sotomayor and Martha-Ann Alito, Samuel Alito’s wife, into stereotypical female gender roles. Alito similarly was defined in a stereotypical male gender role.
Sonia Sotomayor made history in August 2009 when she was confirmed as the first Hispanic person and the third woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. However, her confirmation did not come without controversy. Women’s groups and Hispanic groups complained she had been viciously attacked in the media. Conservatives charged that President Obama nominated her to the court only because of her race and gender. Several conservative pundits, primarily white males, attacked her in gendered and racial terms. “She’s an angry woman, she’s a bigot, she’s a racist,” said Rush Limbaugh on his talk show. Former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove characterized her as “acting like sort of a schoolmarm.” Commentator Pat Buchanan called her an “affirmative action pick.” And talk show host G. Gordon Liddy of Watergate fame made the bizarre comment that he hoped “the key conferences aren’t when she’s menstruating or something.” Sotomayor was 55 years old when she was nominated to the court (Women’s Media Center, 2009).
During Sotomayor’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing in July 2009, Republican members of the Senate Judiciary committee questioned her temperament and her fairness. One of their main concerns was a 2001 speech in which she called herself a “wise Latina” whose decisions could be informed by her ethnic and gender background and might be superior to those of a white male. (Sotomayor grew up in the Bronx, the daughter of Puerto Rican parents.) During the hearings, columnist Kathleen Parker in the Washington Post took to task the Republican male senators on the judiciary committee for their condemnation of Sotomayor: “Are we to infer that men of European descent are never unduly influenced by their own ethnicity, gender or political preferences? Can anyone affirm this assertion with a straight face?” (Parker, 2009). In addition, Post columnist Eugene Robinson pointed out that critics of the “wise Latina” comment were operating on “a flawed assumption: that whiteness and maleness are not themselves facets of a distinct identity” (Robinson, 2009).
Sotomayor, a Yale Law School graduate with 17 years of experience on the bench, ultimately became a Supreme Court justice. But the intense scrutiny raised questions. Only two of the 17 judiciary committee members who conducted the Sotomayor hearings were female. Would a male undergo the same kind of criticism and partisan attacks? Would he be questioned in the same way? An opportunity for a case study arose. Three years before Sotomayor’s nomination, Samuel Alito, a white male, faced the same panel. Alito is the son of an Italian immigrant and like Sotomayor, graduated from Yale Law School. Both he and Sotomayor attended Princeton University as undergraduates. He also was 55 years old when nominated. And he, too, made a public statement about his ethnic background informing his judicial work:
When a case comes before me involving, let’s say, someone who is an immigrant — and we get an awful lot of immigration cases and naturalization cases — I can’t help but think of my own ancestors, because it wasn’t that long ago when they were in that position… When I get a case about discrimination, I have to think about people in my own family who suffered discrimination because of their ethnic background or because of religion or because of gender. And I do take that into account (C-SPAN, January 11, 2006)
This study examines how the two Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, Alito’s and Sotomayor’s, were covered in two leading U.S. newspapers, The New York Times and The Washington Post. It examines media frames used to characterize a Hispanic woman and a white man, both of whom were being questioned about the same job, Supreme Court justice. It asks the research question: How did two leading U.S. newspapers frame coverage of Samuel Alito’s and Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court confirmations? The study examines the similarities and differences in the framing and tries to determine if the justices’ race and/or gender played a factor in newspaper characterizations of them.
The first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court was Sandra Day O’Connor, nominated by President Reagan in 1981. Another woman did not join the highest court in the land until 1993, when Ruth Bader Ginsburg was nominated by President Clinton. Little literature was found about media coverage of women in the state or federal judiciary, but some studies exist on news coverage of women as political candidates for federal offices. Kahn and Goldenberg (1991) found in a content analysis of U.S. Senate campaign coverage in the 1980s that news organizations report on male and female political candidates differently, concentrating more on women’s viability as candidates rather than their stance on issues. The authors also found that female candidates received less media attention than males and when they were covered, were characterized as less competitive than male candidates. When writing about female candidates, female reporters were found to concentrate more on issues than male reporters. The authors noted media coverage during the time period “may serve as a critical obstacle for women running for the U.S. Senate” (Kahn & Goldenberg, p. 180).
However, six years later Smith (1997) found in a newspaper content analysis that media portrayals of 1990s female candidates had become more equitable. The year 1992 was known as “The Year of the Woman,” following Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony at U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings. Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment led to greater awareness and legal reforms that acknowledged such harassment as a civil offense. Just after the 1992 election, more women than ever before served in Congress: six in the Senate, and 47 in the House of Representatives (Abramson, 2009). One of the 1992 Senate newcomers was Dianne Feinstein of California, who 17 years later was a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee at Sotomayor’s hearing. Smith’s research on 1990s female candidates in statewide campaigns suggested media coverage perpetuated systematic gender stereotypes, although “they are not so glaring as reported in previous studies” (p. 71). He found that women were portrayed less as novelties than in the past, but news media continued to pay more attention to male candidates.
The same year, Carroll and Schrieber (1997) concluded that newspaper coverage reflected both positive and negative stereotypes of female politicians in the U.S. Congress. In their content analysis of articles in 27 major newspapers in 1993 and 1994, they found that women elected to Congress in 1992 received more media attention than men elected the same year. They also concluded that women were portrayed as “agents of change” (Carroll and Schrieber, p. 145). Still, media coverage adhered to a number of stereotypes, including stories about women’s appearances and clothing and coverage in newspapers’ style pages rather than news sections. And the coverage focused mainly on women’s involvement in so-called “women’s issues,” such as women’s health and abortion.
By the 2000s, women politicians still faced hackneyed characterizations. Maytal (2005) examined newspaper coverage of women officeholders in the 108th Congress during 2003. She concluded that congresswomen received less newspaper coverage than congressmen, except for stories published in newspaper lifestyle sections that focused on their personal lives. In follow-up interviews with press secretaries for female House of Representative members, Maytal found that some congresswomen’s hairstyles and roles as mothers had been mentioned in stories about issues; e.g., Representative Nancy Pelosi was identified as “the mother of five” in an article about the Democratic Party’s legislative strategy (Maytal, p. 7).
News frames are structures journalists employ, consciously or unconsciously, to make sense of the material they report. Erving Goffman defined frames as a “specific set of expectations used to make sense of a social situation at a given point in time” (Baran & Davis, 2009, p. 317). Norris described frames as ways to “simplify, prioritize and structure the narrative flow of events when covering men and women in public life” (Norris, 1997, p. 6). Gender becomes a factor in framing when women are portrayed in ways that support the dominant ideology regarding women’s social roles. In a patriarchal society, women hold secondary status and media frames tend to reinforce that status. Tuchman (1978) and Gans (1979) established that news is socially constructed and relies upon official sources composed of those who hold power: typically, white, middle-aged males. News coverage is framed to support the status quo, which favors the interests of those in power, and frames reinforce common narratives and images to make sense of social structures (Baran & Davis, 2009; Norris, 1997).
Journalists learn to employ frames through their professional training and practices, and therefore may not consciously reinforce gender stereotypes. However, the ways journalists present news coverage often fall under common socially constructed frames. Women in media stories often are portrayed as victims, mothers, wives, or other roles in society’s private sphere rather than the public sphere, and less often as those in power or seeking power within government or the corporate world. When women do seek power or hold power, media patterns show they may be depicted within frames such as “the first woman” to hold the position; as outsiders, not members of the dominant group; or as agents of change (Norris, 1997; Rakow & Wackwitz, 2004).
The concept of “the other” addresses the marginalized roles of women and minorities in society, with white males of U.S. or European descent considered in media representations as the norm or the powerful (Byerly, 2007). Media perpetuate these societal beliefs, although groups representing “the other” have made inroads through activism and social movements. Women, minorities and other groups that defy traditional gender, racial and sexual norms also have been framed in news media as outsiders. Tuchman’s (1978) notion of symbolic annihilation states that those framed as “the other” are either marginalized, dismissed, trivialized or condemned in media (McGregor, 2000). Women who seek power in patriarchal society may be framed as “extremists and deviants,” sexualized as objects or undermined by a focus on their personal relationships and personality traits (Gibson, 2009). These patterns are repeated in mainstream media, which set the agenda for what is considered important in society, as McCombs and Shaw noted in 1972. Mainstream media also play a role in how society understands gender roles. The hegemonic function of the news media protects the interests of males, who hold the majority of power in the U.S. Also, journalism continues to be a male-dominated business, with women composing about 37 percent of newspaper staffs (ASNE, 2010) and 40 percent of the television news workforce (RTNDA, 2007). In journalism management, two out of three newsroom supervisors are male and three out of four television news directors are male (McCormick Foundation, 2010). It stands to reason that the socially constructed news products disseminated in the United States favor the interests of men, whether the selection and presentation of what is considered newsworthy is conscious or unconscious.
News products may be read and analyzed as journalist-prepared texts that help the public to understand issues, events and other people (Bronstein, 2005). By consuming repetitive patterns and topics as part of their media diets, readers and viewers learn to make sense of reality through journalistic presentations. “Given the majority of citizens’ lack of personal ties to emerging social movements, media frames can be a powerful influence in the construction of public opinion,” according to Bronstein (p. 786). Frames also are important because of what they leave out, giving only a partial or generalized version of a topic. Therefore, journalism becomes a conduit for routine, expected ideas that uphold the power order (Baran & Davis, 2009).
The New York Times and The Washington Post were chosen as units for study. The New York Times was chosen because it is considered the standard-bearer for excellent journalism in the United States. It also is widely read, with the third-largest circulation of all U.S. newspapers, following The Wall Street Journal, primarily a business newspaper, and USA Today, a general-interest national newspaper (Mondonewspapers.com, 2010). The Washington Post was chosen because it is the hometown newspaper for Washington, D.C., the center of U.S. government. The Post also has a national reputation for journalistic excellence.
Access World News database was used to locate newspaper articles that ran in the two newspapers during the Alito and Sotomayor hearings in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee and through their confirmation votes in the U.S. Senate. Stories mentioning Sonia Sotomayor were pulled between July 12, 2009, the day her hearings started, and August 7, 2009, the day after she was confirmed. Stories mentioning Samuel Alito were pulled from January 9, 2006, the day his hearings began, and February 1, 2006, the day he was confirmed. After this process, the stories were cross-referenced with articles between the same dates in the Lexis-Nexis Academic database to ensure all stories in the Post and the Times mentioning Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayor between those dates were obtained. A total of 127 articles referring to Alito and 119 referring Sotomayor were collected. Those included not only news stories and opinion columns, but also letters to the editor, editorials, lists of the Senate roll call tallies and brief items. In addition, they included stories that mentioned Alito and/or Sotomayor that did not focus on their confirmation hearings. For example, one story on Monday, January 9, 2006 in The Washington Post Style section profiled a lawyer who headed a conservative group that supported Alito, but the story was about her, not him (Davis, 2006). Such stories were removed from the analysis because they did not pertain directly to the hearings or the nominees. After elimination of the stories that did not focus on the hearings, 113 news texts about Alito and 99 about Sotomayor remained for a textual analysis. They included news stories as well as letters to the editor and sets of letters to the editor (counted as one), briefs, the Senate roll call, transcripts of the hearings, editorials and opinion columns. Photographs were not analyzed. All articles were read and placed into broad categories according to the themes or frames they conveyed. Each article was then reread and the themes were broken down further according to cues and signifiers within the text. The researcher then identified and interpreted the major frames and subtexts the Times and Post journalists used in their coverage of Alito and Sotomayor.
Several themes emerged from the textual analysis.
Much news media coverage is akin to a horserace. Journalists expend hours reporting and writing and use much ink and web space attempting to predict winners and losers in a particular scenario. However, like a real horserace, this sometimes is difficult or impossible to call. Both the Times and the Post dedicated endless column inches of copy to speculate how each candidate’s approval would influence Supreme Court decisions. Most often, Alito was predicted to tilt the court’s focus to the right and Sotomayor to the left. Although the hearings were not an election, the far most common news frame focused on the political implications, with Democratic and Republican senators dissecting and attacking each nominee’s merits and deficits. Democrats criticized Alito as too conservative to judge fairly and Republicans criticized Sotomayor as too liberal. Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy declared Alito was “anti-black, anti-disabled and anti-women” (Babington, 2006). Republicans used Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” comment to insinuate she was biased. Ironically, they also criticized statements she made about bringing empathy to the court as “more akin to politics. And politics has no place in the courtroom” (Baker & Lewis, 2009). Apparently politics had plenty of places in the Senate hearing room.
Stories also predicted Alito would vote to strike down Roe vs. Wade, the 1972 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld legal abortion. The New York Times ran a piece noting that Democrats saw Alito’s confirmation as “putting an enduring conservative ideological imprint on the nation’s judiciary,” the political makeup of Congress, the White House and public opinion (Nagourney, 2006). However, those predictions did not exactly come true. Just two years later, Barack Obama, a Democrat, was elected president. And four years later in 2010, Roe vs. Wade was still the law of the land.
Conservatives quoted in the newspaper stories portrayed Sotomayor as an “activist” judge who would allow her gender and ethnicity to influence her decisions. Other articles focused on political support for each nominee, characterizing conservatives, the religious right and Republicans as aligned with Alito and liberals and Democrats aligned with Sotomayor, although the Supreme Court is nonpartisan. Stories also delved into each judge’s opinions, writings and speeches, gauging how each would vote on various issues, including abortion, the death penalty, affirmative action, gun rights and executive power. As each hearing began, stories repeatedly quoted each nominee insisting he or she would rule on cases impartially and neutrally, as judges are expected to do. At no point in the hearings did either nominee reveal his or her political stances on any issue. To clarify, the Times ran more than one story describing how recent Supreme Court nominees have been coached to steer away from political topics, to “sound as if you know what you are talking about but avoid saying anything” (Lewis, 2009; Liptak, 2009).
The biggest political news out of the Sotomayor hearings appeared to be the fact that one Judiciary Committee member, Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, broke party ranks and voted for her confirmation.  Graham even told her during the hearings, “Unless you have a complete meltdown, you’re going to get confirmed” (Lewis, 2009). But even this reporting offered no real insights on how Sotomayor would perform as a judge.
Reporters tried to dissect each nominee’s personality. Many of the articles portrayed Alito as a dull character. The New York Times described him as “shy and serious, prone to spending long hours in case files” and as a family man who left a job in the Washington, D.C., Reagan administration because he wanted to raise his children in New Jersey, his home state. Stories also contrasted him with U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, with whom he worked in the early 1980s Justice Department and who was confirmed four months previously. Roberts “was handsome and funny” compared with Alito, wrote David D. Kirkpatrick in the Times (2006). One Washington Post story contended Alito’s hearings were dry compared with those of “the witty, charming and erudite John G. Roberts Jr.” (Milbank, 2006). In fact, the Alito portrayed by the Post was downright wooden: “While senators delivered their speeches, Alito sat unnaturally still, feet flat on the ground, elbows on armrests, hands in lap, wearing an expressionless face” (Milbank, 2006). Other Post stories maintained the public was interested in more pressing issues than the Alito hearings and reported senators nearly fell asleep in the hearing room (Balz, 2006; Milbank, January 10, 2006). In the Times, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham was quoted ranking Alito an “eight” compared with Roberts’ ten (Kirkpatrick, 2006). And Times writer Charles Isherwood (2006) noted the hearings’ lack of drama and the constrained nature of recent Supreme Court nominees , writing that Alito could be cast in the role of “The Man With Few Opinions of His Opinions.” However, Kirkpatrick pointed out that Alito’s “low key, almost shy demeanor” worked to his advantage because it made it difficult for Democrats to attack him.
While Alito’s emotions were downplayed, several stories focused on the emotions of his wife, Martha-Ann Alito. On the second day of testimony she left the hearing room after Lindsey Graham defended her husband against accusations of bigotry. The Post reported that Martha-Ann Alito “stood up, tissue in hand, and rushed to the back of the room, where Capitol Police whisked away the tearful woman” (Milbank, January 11, 2006). A follow-up story in the Post’s Style section dissected the incident, concluding that “the crying wife is sacrosanct, an argument-ender, and more than a little retrograde” (Copeland, 2006). The Post’s David Broder noted that when Martha-Ann Alito cried, her husband “became the sympathetic character in this drama” (Broder, 2006). In the Times, Isherwood (2006) speculated that Martha-Ann Alito actually may have been driven to leave the hearing room because of “grinding boredom.”
Some parts of the hearings contained controversy. Democrats grilled Alito about his membership in a group, Concerned Alumni of Princeton, that in the 1970s denounced admission of women and minorities to the prestigious university. Alito insisted he did not remember joining, although it was listed on his 1985 resume (Russakoff, 2006). The Times ran an editorial stating that Alito’s explanation was “hard to believe” and questioning his honesty (The New York Times, 2006). Alito also testified that he was drawn to conservatism in part because of early 1970s activism by his Princeton peers and professors. He said he observed at the institution “some very smart people and very privileged people behaving irresponsibly” (Cave, 2006).
In contrast to the supposedly dull Alito, Sotomayor was portrayed in Post articles as “a confident and mature woman” who laughed, used her hands to communicate and put her hands congenially on the shoulders of the male Judiciary Committee members (Gerhart, 2009). On the other hand, the Times wrote of her “forced silence” to avoid any pot-stirring (Stolberg, 2009). Maureen Dowd (2009)noted that Sotomayor suppressed her emotions when testifying before the primarily male Judiciary Committee: “the Bronx Bomber kept a robotic mask in place.” When male senators asked a series of questions about Sotomayor’s temperament (her previous speeches were described as “passionate” and colleagues said she ran a “hot bench” in her courtroom), both Dowd and the Post’s Kathleen Parker cried foul. Quipped Parker: “Here is what women hear when men ask a female candidate about her temperament, ‘Are you really the bitch everybody says you are?’”
Other stories took a more lighthearted approach to Sotomayor’s personality, pointing out her affection for Nancy Drew novels as a girl and her admiration of the TV lawyer Perry Mason.
Sotomayor’s previous comment about being a “wise Latina” dominated much of the coverage, so much so that the phrase became cliche. Sotomayor backed off from the statement during the hearings, saying she regretted her earlier words. In her first day of testimony, Sotomayor explained that she made the comment not to insinuate that her life experiences made her better to judge a case, but “to inspire young Hispanics, Latino students and lawyers to believe that their life experiences added value to the process” (Goldstein, Barnes and Kane, 2009). Newspaper coverage speculated that she distanced herself from the statement as part of a strategy to reveal as little of herself as possible. In fact, in the Times, Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe said the hearings revealed “nothing” about her legal views (Savage, Baker, Liptak & Bennett, 2009).
The Post ran a column from Sotomayor’s former Princeton professor, Peter Winn, who tried to clarify the “wise Latina” comment. Winn discussed Sotomayor’s early 1970s experiences as a Latina in Princeton’s “WASP culture,” her growth as a writer and scholar, and how she inspired him to teach Latino studies, in which he now is an expert. “Personally, I view the comment as a reference to the enriching impact of her life experiences on her work as a judge,” he wrote (Winn, 2009). Nearly every Times story about Sotomayor noted that her parents were from Puerto Rico, that she grew up in a public housing project in the South Bronx and that her mother raised her alone after her father died when she was 9. The Times characterized Sotomayor’s background in her own words: as “uniquely American” (Baker & Lewis, 2009) and interviewed summer school students at the school Sotomayor attended as a child in the Bronx. “Sometimes I think, ‘What if I am sitting at the same desk she sat in?” commented one student (Fernandez, 2009).
The Post ran a story about Latinos attending the hearings to show support and pride for the first Hispanic Supreme Court nominee (Montgomery & Kilpatrick, 2009) and another about Latino response to her confirmation. “Can you imagine the message this is sending to all the women of the United States?” one source was quoted as asking (Aizenman, 2009). The Times ran a reaction story the day after her Senate confirmation quoting Puerto Rican residents of New York proud that one of their own ascended to the high court (Gonzalez, 2009).
Some articles pointed out that Sotomayor’s nomination shattered the notion that only white males have power in U.S. government. Post columnist Eugene Robinson asked whether the Republican Party would continue “tying its fortunes to an anachronistic claim of white male exceptionalism and privilege” (Robinson, 2009). Robinson also noted the hypocrisy of criticizing Sotomayor for her reference to her background when none was offered for Alito’s statement about his background as the son of Italian immigrants. “Everyone has a unique personal history,” Robinson wrote.
Much less was written about Alito’s comments on his ethnic background. Some coverage mentioned his ethnicity as an Italian-American and as a white male but not nearly to the extent Sotomayor’s status as a Latina was emphasized. The Times covered Alito’s statement on the first day of his hearings, in which he spoke of “his father’s arrival from Italy as an infant” (Kirkpatrick, January 10, 2006). Several other Times stories identified him as “the son of an Italian immigrant.” However, the Post did not even mention Alito’s statement about his background as the son of immigrants could influence his decisions.
Alito replaced a white woman, Sandra Day O’Connor, on the bench, and Sotomayor replaced a white male, David Souter. The Post compared Alito’s background with O’Connor’s, insinuating that his background as a white, ethnic male who attended an Ivy League university in the turbulent early 1970s impelled him to become a conservative as a means to counter the changing landscape of the time. “Alito’s arrival on the Supreme Court would mean that, in place of a 75-year-old Western woman who grew up on a cattle ranch, met with gender discrimination in her first job search, and then served as a state legislator and trial court judge, the court will be adding a white ethnic male from the industrial Northeast who has spent the past 15 years in the wonkish world of the federal appellate bench” (Lane, 2006). However, the other stories did not specifically point out Alito’s male status.
On the other hand, Sotomayor’s femaleness was a major topic of stories, many of which pointed out she would be the third woman on the Supreme Court. Sotomayor attended Princeton at a time when both women and minorities were rare at the university, while Alito was part of the male culture there. However, each nominee employed a network of mentors to ascend through the ranks. The day before the hearings began, the Post ran a long feature portraying Sotomayor as a Princeton outsider who bonded with a “band of misfits.” She later evolved into a brilliant judge mentored by mainly male, but some female, role models who pushed her to succeed (Goldstein, 2009). The article also highlighted how she had turned to fellow Puerto Ricans for advice and help. Times columnist David Brooks tackled Sotomayor’s experiences by describing her life as a classic story of rising from the bottom to the top, but with more complications. She is, he wrote, someone “who worked hard and contributes profoundly to society but who also sacrificed things along the way” (Brooks, 2009). He attributed much of her success to her extended family and mentors: “Her ascent wasn’t a maverick change against the establishment. Instead, at each phase, her talents were noticed by a well-placed member of that establishment—a famous professor, a revered D.A., a partner at an elite firm. She was elevated and guided” (Brooks, 2009). Brooks also blamed the breakup of Sotomayor’s marriage and a later relationship breakup as the consequences of her “workaholism.” He wrote that these traits provide a glimpse into a high-achieving lifestyle. However, his column failed to discuss high-achieving male judges, apparently implying that only high-achieving women have commitment problems.
The day before Sotomayor’s hearings began, the Times ran a lengthy magazine piece on the only woman remaining on the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who candidly replied when asked how she felt: “I feel that I don’t have to be the lone woman around this place.” Ginsburg added that having only one woman on the court (after O’Connor’s departure) gave the public “the wrong perception of the court” (Bazelon, 2009). The author, Emily Bazelon, noted that in Ginsburg’s own 1993 hearings, she had said she hoped soon to see three or four women on the court. “My prediction was right for the Supreme Court of Canada,” Ginsburg quipped in the 2009 story. More revelations from Ginsburg included a defense of Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” comment: “All of our differences make the conference better”; her thoughts on how women judges might rule differently from men in discrimination cases: “the women will relate to their own experiences”; and the fact that she, like Sotomayor, is a product of affirmative action: “I was the first tenured woman at Columbia.”
Lifestyle sections have long been relegated the “women’s section” of the newspaper and apparently the Post believes its women readers are keenly interested in fashion, even the clothing choices of Supreme Court nominees. During each nominee’s hearings, the Post’s Style section published analysis from Robin Givhan, Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion critic, on each nominee. The story on the “unremarkable” Alito actually focused much more on his wife’s wardrobe than his own. Givhan (2006) made some snarky comments about Mary-Ann Alito’s wardrobe, including that her clothing “seemed to be coordinated with a rigor more commonly found in Garanimals” and describing her suit made of fabric similar to “the upholstery that once covered La-Z-Boys.” A letter to the editor condemned Givhan’s criticism of Mary-Ann Alito as “at best, tasteless and, at worst, malicious” (Stukey, 2006).
In 2009, Givhan’s fashion article on Sotomayor criticized her wardrobe as dated and unfeminine “like a high school principal” but acknowledged it was “safe and guarded.” Givhan pointed out in the Sotomayor piece that Alito also dressed in an “unremarkable” way for his hearings but that his wife dressed “like a PTA mom turned peacock” (Givhan, 2009).
Discussion and conclusions
Not surprisingly, the Post and the Times most commonly employed the horserace frame, a classic approach to news, to construct their coverage about the Alito and Sotomayor confirmation hearings. The newspapers devoted a great deal of text to reporters’ predictions on hoe each nominee might influence the court if approved, how senators on the judiciary committee might vote, how arguments between senators affected the mood of the hearings, what confrontational questions senators asked nominees and other back-and-forth chatter. But what news value does this sort of coverage really provide? Not much in the way of useful information. Covering the horserace aspect does not tell the reader much about the nominees or how qualified they are to do the job. In fact, the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings provided more of a forum for senators to grandstand rather than for the public to learn about the nominees. Several stories described the coaching Supreme Court nominees receive to reveal little to nothing about their philosophies or opinions on any issues. In fact, the most recent nominee to the court, Elena Kagan, once called these hearings a “farce” (Epps, 2010). So reporters covering the hearings were left with daily space to fill and only an old formula to rehash.
The Post’s and Times’ attempts to delve into the nominee’s personalities revealed little as well. The coverage of Alito described him as dull, but reporters in the hearings could not gain much insight into his character from watching him give non-answers to senators’ questions. In fact, in search of a speck of action, writers for the Times and the Post leapt onto the fact that Martha-Ann Alito cried at one point in the hearings, portraying it as a moment of great drama. Stories dissected her actions and speculated on its meaning, when in reality the news value of her emotional display essentially was nil. Sotomayor’s personality analysis by the newspapers revealed only a bit more than Alito’s, with the papers portraying her as amiable but also playing up some senators’ allegations of a “temperament” problem, which Post columnist Kathleen Parker summed up as an attempt to portray her as a difficult woman.
The ethnicity frame revealed the most interesting newspaper characterizations. The newspapers generally cast Sotomayor in the role of “the other” –- a Latina who defied norms and expectations. Her story of a child of Puerto Ricans growing up in the Bronx was framed as a classic Horatio Alger success tale with a twist. Several writers went out of their way to insinuate Sotomayor’s success was not all her own; that she received help from others of her ethncity who held power. Yet, as much as her “wise Latina” statement was played up in the news, Alito’s statement about his ethnicity was played down. A few stories mentioned his heritage as an Italian-American, but mainly as an attempt to explain why he had become a conservative against the radical backdrop of the late 1960s and early 1970s. While Sotomayor was portrayed in the coverage as an outsider and a “first,” Alito held the inside track as the norm: the white, middle-aged male expected for a Supreme Court nominee. To their credit, Post columnists Kathleen Parker and Eugene Robinson pointed out the hypocrisy of senators’ and others’ categorizing Sotomayor as a challenger to the status quo rather than accepting her as a legitimate nominee.
Some of the coverage even belittled Sotomayor by insinuating her success was not all her own. David Brooks’ Times column noted that (male) mentors had “guided” her. No such column framed Alito as the product of others’ help. He was described in the coverage as a self-made man, although he clearly had help mentors from the start of his career. Columns by Parker in the Post and Maureen Dowd in the Times condemned the senators’ questions about Sotomayor’s temperament and the statement by Lindsey Graham that she would be confirmed unless she had a “meltdown,” a word unlikely to be used in association with a male.
The Times faced the gender issue head-on it is interview with current Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg, who candidly pointed out that the lack of women on the court created “the wrong perception.” Brooks’ column also addressed it by discussing Sotomayor’s status as single and childless, and writing that powerful women often must sacrifice marriage and children to succeed in the legal field. However, it should be noted that little of Alito’s personal life and work habits were discussed and no stories questioned how he was able to succeed with a marriage and children. Apparently it was assumed that his wife took care of everything outside of work for him. Martha-Ann Alito became part of the coverage when she cried, but also when the Post’s Givhan opted to critique her wardrobe. The ridiculous Givhan fashion columns on the nominees focused much more on Martha-Ann than her husband, yet none of Sotomayor’s relatives were critiqued, except a reference to her mother “clutching her purse” in the hearing room. There was no fashion coverage of Sotomayor’s stepfather, brother, sister-in-law, nieces and nephews, who also attended the hearings, so the coverage of Martha-Ann Alito’s outfits appeared petty and stereotypical.
In short, the U.S.’s elite newspapers fell into the same constructed news frames so often employed in news media. Some of the profile stories gave readers an in-depth look at the nominees, but overall the coverage sent a message that the hearings were politics as usual. More disturbingly, much of the newspapers’ Sotomayor coverage resorted to old gender and ethnic stereotypes that cast her in the role of “the other” while Alito, the white male, was considered the norm. This type of coverage helps to uphold the power status quo in America and does little to advance women’s and minorities’ equity. To their credit, some of the columnists, notably Park, Robinson and Dowd, pointed out this dichotomy and some of the readers who wrote letters to the editors did as well. Their writings helped to balance the unfounded and sexist attacks by others in the media, including Limbaugh, Rove and Liddy.
Future research in this area will examine news coverage of the most recent Supreme Court nominee, Elena Kagan, whose Senate Judiciary hearings took place in July 2010.
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