Sunday, January 29, 2006

Anatomy of a Smear

Every now and then, Mouldfan and I trade barbs over our perspectives on the mainstream media (or MSM, as some have taken to calling them). Mouldfan (and correct me if I am wrong) maintains that the liberal bias of the MSM is a myth, and that one can find examples of conservative bias in the media if one looks hard enough. I, on the other hand, think the extent of liberal MSM bias is so pervasive that the only way one could think there was not liberal bias would be to not watch, listen to, or read anything on television, radio, and in newspapers, respectively. Indeed, if I had nothing better to do, I could probably post on this subject alone every hour on the hour.

This past week, there was a particularly egregious display of this left-wing media bias, and the target of MSM scorn was none other than current associate justice of the Supreme Court, Antonin Scalia. Follow me for a review of how this non-story got started -- as well as how it fizzled, and why.

On January 23, 2006, ABC News released an exclusive story claiming that, on the very day that John Roberts was being sworn in as the new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in late September, Justice Scalia "instead was on the tennis court at one of the country's top resorts, the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Bachelor Gulch, [Colorado], during a trip to a legal seminar sponsored by the Federalist Society."

ABC News correspondent Brian Ross's breathless account went on, asserting that, "[n]ot only did Scalia's absence appear to be a snub of the new chief justice, but according to some legal ethics experts, it also raised questions about the propriety of what critics call judicial junkets." (Only one so-called legal ethics expert, NYU Law professor Stephen Gillers, was cited by name in the story. A quick perusing of Professor Gillers' writings reveals his liberal political leaning.
) Ross gave short shrift to Scalia's own subsequent explanation for both his absence at the swearing-in and attendance at the event:
At a press conference, almost two weeks later, Scalia was not inclined to tell reporters his whereabouts during Roberts' swearing-in.

"I was out of town with a commitment that I could not break, and that's what the public information office told you," he said.

It "doesn't matter what it was. It was a commitment that I couldn't break," Scalia continued when questioned further.
In addition to impugning Scalia, Ross could not resist the temptation to attack Scalia's fellow associate justice, Clarence Thomas, by noting that Thomas "has received tens of thousands of dollars in valuable gifts, including an $800 leather jacket from NASCAR, a $1,200 set of tires, a vacation trip by private jet, and a rare Bible valued at $19,000." (Conspicuously absent was any discussion of gifts that may have been received by other justices. And one also has to wonder what ABC News found most distasteful: Was it that Thomas was receiving gifts, or was it that one of those gifts happened to have been a Bible?)

ABC News concluded its "news" story by noting that "[a] spokesman for the Federalist Society also declined to comment."

Basically, what ABC News tried to do was mask ideological slander as investigative journalism. It directly criticized Justices Scalia and Thomas for (in its view) improperly being influenced by trips and gifts, respectively, and indirectly criticized Chief Justice Roberts by implying that he would be accepting of undue influence upon the Court in the future.

The cacophony of liberal outrage probably would have grown were it not for . . . the truth. In the wake of ABC's smear piece, Eugene B. Meyer, president of the Federalist Society, sent a letter to ABC News president David Westin in which he challenged some of the allegations made in the story. (See the Federalist Society's website for not only this letter, but the stream of follow-up correspondence between the Federalist Society and ABC News.) Leonard Leo, the executive vice president of the Federalist Society, also released a more detailed list about the facts surrounding the constitutional and legal seminar, as well as the purpose of Scalia's involvement. In particular, Leo noted that:
4. ABC Nightline was fully aware that its piece was misleading and inaccurate, and the way in which it prepared the story bespeaks hypocrisy.

• Several hours before the program aired, the Federalist Society spoke with Nightline’s senior producer, David Scott, as well as the investigative reporter who worked on the story, Rhonda Schwartz. The Federalist Society set forth the above facts and made very clear that tennis occupied a miniscule part of Justice Scalia’s time in Colorado. Nightline nevertheless chose to lead with a “tennis outing” theme and grossly failed to present the facts surrounding the course in a way that demonstrated the amount of time and work involved.

• At least a week before this conversation, the Federalist Society had spoken with Rhonda Schwartz and informed her in explicit terms that Justice Scalia taught a 10-hour course attended by lawyers. Nonetheless, ABC’s website, on the night of the broadcast, cast the issue as Justice Scalia attending a judicial education seminar. There is a world of difference between teaching a 10-hour course and coming to a resort to hear other speakers between various recreational activities—but Nightline chose to manufacture the false impression that Justice Scalia was at a function that entailed much play and little work.

• It is ironic that, in preparing a story that seeks to make the point that judges should be held to high standards of ethical integrity, ABC itself broke the law by trespassing on private property and invading the privacy of private individuals who did not give permission to be videotaped. Indeed, ABC contacted the hotel for permission to film the Society’s activities, and permission was denied by hotel management.
Meyer summed up the whole debacle best in his letter:
I am deeply concerned that, reminiscent of the false National Guard story fabricated by CBS's Dan Rather and Mary Mapes, ABC has simply chosen to score political points by blatantly disregarding the facts and true nature of the circumstances which surround the Federalist Society's course on September 30, 2005.
I said at the start of this post that this post was as much about the phony ABC News story as it was about how it was stopped dead in its tracks. ABC's attempt to misinform the public was brought to a screeching halt by what many have taken to calling the new media -- by top-notch websites such as Confirm Them and Southern Appeal. These website, and others, have taken it upon themselves to actually challenge the liberal drivel from the major networks and print outlets that used to go unchallenged. As this story and others have shown, they are effective, and are doing a great job displaying the facts and letting the public decide for itself.

In the same way that ABC deserves scorn for its Orwellian manipulation, the above websites, and others, deserve kudos for shining the light of truth on the issue.


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