Posted by: hillary210 | July 20, 2009

Watchdog Response to Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” comment

“I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life,” stated Sonia Sotomayor, a Federal Appeal Courts Judge, in a 2001 speech at the University of California-Berkeley Law School. Fast-forward eight years later – the New York Times front-page headline reads: “Obama Chooses Sotomayor for Supreme Court Nominee.” Replacing Justice David Souter, Sotomayor would be the first Hispanic justice as well as the third female justice in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court if confirmed by the Senate.

Little did Sotomayor know that the seemingly harmless comment made eight years ago at U.C.-Berkeley would be a flammable topic in the media today and, more surprisingly, one of the main focuses in her hearings before the Senate as President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee. I doubt she predicted this comment would trump public interest over her guiding ideologies, ruling record, etc, but it certainly did.

Once Obama declared the appointment, the media went to town doing what it does best, digging up dirt. Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” comment garnered massive attention from the media and politicians alike. The comment was reported on in a variety of ways. The examination of two web-based media watchdogs, one conservative and one liberal, portray opposing views regarding Sotomayor’s statement.

Media Matters, a left-wing political media watchdog, claims to “fight conservative misinformation.” This source’s coverage of the Sotomayor’s remark criticizes the media for reporting “Republican distortions” of Sotomayor’s comments. In an article entitled Media Still Can’t Find Context of Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” Comment, this media watchdog blames the media for neglecting to provide full context of Sotomayor’s quote. The article emphasizes, “she [Sotomayor] was specifically discussing the importance of judicial diversity in deciding ‘race and sex discrimination cases.’” The article published a section from Sotomayor’s speech, providing viewers with the two paragraphs preceding the statement and the two paragraphs following it.

The mere inclusion of the context of Sotomayor’s remark attempts to defend her “wise Latina” remark in itself. By providing context to viewers, Media Matters combats media speculation that Sotomayor claimed a Latina woman would issue better rulings than a white man – flat out, in any circumstance. The article continues to acknowledge the context of Sotomayor’s speech by including a segment in which Sotomayor praises judicial rulings of white men. “I…believe that we should not be so myopic as to believe that others of different experiences or backgrounds are incapable of understanding the values and needs of people from a different group. Many are so capable. As Judge Cedarbaum pointed out to me, nine white men on the Supreme Court in the past have done so on many occasions and on many issues including Brown [Vs. the Board of Education].”

Media Matters also brings in an interesting analysis when the watchdog points out, “in criticizing or reporting criticism of Sotomayor’s comments, they [the media] have also failed to report similar comments by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito regarding the impact their backgrounds and personal experiences have had on their judicial thinking.” “My Grandfather’s Son,” an autobiography of Justice Clarence Thomas, reveals Justice Thomas’ merging of personal experiences with his professional career. Columnist Rick Martinez points out that the autobiography reveals, “judicial conservatives laud Thomas’ devotion to upholding personal rights and freedom ahead of governmental intrusion on behalf of the common good. What they fail to recognize, however, is that much of that devotion wasn’t learned at the feet of law professors. It was learned at the business end of Myers Anderson’s [Thomas’s grandfather’s] boot. I doubt Thomas would dispute that his life experience, gender and ethnicity have given him a special sort of wisdom.”

A good point is raised here: why the attacks on Sotomayor and not Thomas? Why now? Is it because she is a woman? A minority? Both? Is it because, since the installment of America’s first African American president, we are focused more and more on racial issues? In bringing this issue to light, Media Matters attempts portray Sotomayor as a singled-out victim.

Diametrically opposed to the liberal bias, Accuracy in Media (AIM) is a right-wing political media watchdog (but shyer to admit it). AIM’s slogan, “For Fairness, Accuracy and Balance in News Reporting,” is not quite as clear as Media Matters, but once a viewer starts reading, the conservative bias becomes apparent. In More Scandals Haunt Sotomayor, columnist Cliff Kincaid refers to Sotomayor’s statement as a, “raw display of racism.”

Kincaid references Newt Gingrich’s tweet calling Sotomayor a racist. On Face the Nation, Gingrich almost retracted his statement by saying, “I said that was racist but I was applying it to her as a person…the truth is, I don’t know her as a person.” Kincaid addresses Gingrich’s claims by supporting his original statement that Sotomayor’s remark was racist. “Conclusions have to be based on what people say and do. And when someone assumes a position of gender and racial superiority over others, what other conclusion can you come to, except that he or she is a racist?”

Kincaid’s major argument is that, context aside, “the words themselves were evidence of racism.” He brings in a point worth contemplating: is it legitimate for Sotomayor to declare someone of a particular gender and/or race better or worse at rendering judicial decisions – regardless of specific circumstances? Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” comment may have been an opinion best kept to herself; Obama has even acknowledged Sotomayor’s poor choice of words. Pulling out the race card is a tricky game.

The AIM article further sheds light on other scandals surrounding the Supreme Court appointee. The author accuses Sotomayor of calling Puerto Rico, not America, her home. “She referred to herself as a ‘citizen of the world,’ not as a citizen of the United States. This takes on significance in her case because she wrote a foreword to a book called The International Judge. Does she believe in American sovereignty?” Is this a reasonable accusation? Is it such a bad thing for a judicial appointment to be cosmopolitan and educated in international matters? I think not.

“Affirming one’s Latina identity is perfectly acceptable, and is apparently considered a qualification for the Supreme Court. That is because, in the Marxist view, she is a member of an oppressed group who needs to express herself against white supremacy.” I don’t think Karl Marx would be very happy with this application of his manifesto.

Furthermore, Kincaid claims that Sotomayor advocates the use of the courts to push Obama’s political agenda based on a statement made by Sotomayor calling for more “change,” she said, “it is the message of service that President Obama is trying to trumpet and it is a clarion call we are obligated to heed.” It seems here that Kincaid twisted Sotomayor’s statement from “we, the American people, should take our President’s recommendation to be more service-oriented” to “I will follow any request the President asks me when presiding in the Supreme Court.” As a fact-checker, Kincaid surely needs to be checked.

“She is a liberal judge who will legislate for Obama from the bench. No wonder she got the nomination. She seemed to be auditioning for it,” Kincaid concludes.

It is clear to see the biases of both Media Matters and AIM however I think there are elements of fair and partial coverage within each. For example, Media Matters put forth the speech in context, which is important (if not absolutely necessary) for readers to consider while digesting and analyzing the appointee’s comment. Also, the mentioning of other justices such as Clarence Thomas (aside from victimizing Sotomayor) brings an interesting viewpoint that lends support to critical thinking about the matter; it helps viewers put the Sotomayor situation into historical context. Partiality in the AIM article is harder to find due to the severity of Kincaid’s attacks. Gingrich’s admittance to speaking on behalf of Sotomayor yet not knowing her personally hints at a tinge of guilt and warns readers not to judge the superficial; educate yourself, familiarize yourself with Sotomayor then make your decision. Kincaid also points out that, all circumstances aside, the appointee did assume a racial superiority and this is worthy of probing in her hearings. The major difference is that Media Matters claims the context makes all of the difference while AIM emphasizes the “words themselves are enough.”

Is it possible to ascertain ‘truth’ from either of these media watchdogs alone? No, there is too much bias. Is it possible to ascertain ‘truth’ from both watchdog sites combined? The Sotomayor situation argues yes. When the average person is exposed to both watchdogs, I think there is enough information for the viewer to analyze and shape an informed opinion.

“If people have a taste for media and want to spend time with a variety of channels and websites, absolutely they will be better informed,” says Jack Shafer, media columnist for Slate. A combination of both liberal and conservative watchdog media allow people take the time to give valence to certain issues, grapple with contradicting viewpoints and reach an accurate verdict for themselves. The problem, however, is that people tend not to take the time to do this.

In Elite Cues and Media Bias in Presidential Campaigns, author Mark Watts explains, “citizens make political judgments using shortcuts, in particular relying on ‘trusted’ sources of information…people do not understand issues and concerns through direct experience, nor do they hold strong attitudes about the topic. Rather, they form attitudes ‘on the fly’ often in response to elite cues in the news media.” Based on Watts’ explanation, one can assume the role of media (particularly these watchdog sites) tremendously influences the information the public receives and bases opinion on. Therefore, having such an effect, are these watchdog sites appropriate and a good source of information for people to make “shortcut” judgments?

Arguably, yes, as long as people expose themselves to a variety of contradicting sources (I.E. a liberal watchdog and a conservative one). In the Sotomayor case, the context of the actual speech given by Sotomayor proved essential while the conservative watchdog claimed the statement was racist with or without context. Both sites have the right to claim their bias, and more so they admit to claiming bias, but together they do display a wide range of opinions and options from which the public can form their own opinion.

Another potential hindrance to the public receiving a variety of coverage could be preference of attention: Alan Greenblatt and Heather Kleba of the CQ Researcher acknowledge the existence of both “shrill” media and professional journalism, the media “are starving listeners except for a ‘cadre of people with an appetite for serious news.’” They add, “you can’t force people to eat their broccoli.”

The result: “There’s a…risk here in our information diet. Some people are better informed while some have become expert in the trivial. We’re faced with an Scandinavian smorgasbord everyday, and you don’t always eat healthy food at a smorgasbord,”continues Greenblatt and Kleba. Granted both watchdog sites include trivial, outwardly biased information, but as mentioned before there is merit to exposing oneself to both right and left sides. The danger comes when people expose themselves only to one side (like reading only Media Matters and not AIM or vice versa) and consume the information without questioning it, analyzing it or thinking critically about it.

The easy way to fix this would be professional, objective journalism that reports right, left and moderate viewpoints. However the fairness doctrine was discarded and the first amendment is here to stay, and therefore biased news reporting is as well. Martin Johnson, a political scientist at UC Riverside, claims, “If you don’t have any analysis in a story, you haven’t done your job.” My recommendation for the public would be to read everything and read cautiously.

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