Saturday, July 31, 2010

No Protestants Need Apply

I loved stories about "firsts," even though they sometimes ended in embarrassment when you learned later that whatever the subject was it wasn't a "first," or "last" or "only." A good word to use in such stories was "apparently." But there was nothing "apparent" in the historic "first" when Elena Kagan was named to the U.S. Supreme Court. The event marked the first time in American history that there was no Protestant on the nation's highest court. What a history lesson!!! Yet, there was little mention of this in the traditional media. There was a lot made of the fact that three women were now sitting on the bench, which rounded up the usual suspects when it came to diversity.

There was, however, an opinion piece in the New York Times that said the lack of a Protestant showed how little religion mattered on a court that at one time regarded "Jewish" and "Catholic" seats as a mark of diversity. Pat Buchanan and Jim Webb came under fire when they pointed out the lack of a Protestant justice.

The last time I saw this journalistic dance around the obvious was when Ronald Reagan became the first divorced man to be president. At that time I just figured reporters moved in circles were divorce was viewed as a rite of passage. I couldn't help, however, recall the opposition divorced Democrat Adlai Stevenson faced when he ran against Eisenhower in the 1950s, which made me conclude that reporters know little about history, even though they are allegedly writing the first draft of history.

There's a void to fill when it comes to writing history for the mass media. I practically ended up writing full time history pieces toward the end of my career. I loved it, but I felt I got those stories by default because younger reporters failed to see the relevancy. I have a good deal to say about this in my book, which quotes an editor who used almost every history piece he could get. "Most readers know so little about history that these stories are news to them," the editor said. I think Carl Nolte's popular "native son" stories at the Chronicle are evidence of this.

It seems that today the journalistic collective memory doesn't go back even a few years. Why else would the New York Times run the aforementioned commentary when just five years ago religion was a key factor in the appointment of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito? Alito's Catholicism was important enough for the Associated Press' Rachel Zoll to write that for "the first time in U.S. history, five Roman Catholics, a majority, would be on the high court." Zoll led her story by saying that the appointment would end "more than 200 years of Protestant domination on the Supreme Court."

Eventually, such coverage was so persistent Alito took note of it in a speech to the Justinian Society, a law group. "There has been so much talk lately about the number of Catholics serving on the Supreme Court," he said. "This is one of those questions that does not die." He went on to complain about "respectable people who have seriously raised the questions in serious publications about whether these individuals could be trusted to do their jobs." Before Alito there was John Roberts. The Los Angeles Times even went after his wife with a piece headlined "Wife of Nominee Holds Strong Antiabortion Views."

Do I hear "double standard" and "liberal media?" I think there is far more involved and it's been evident since UPI became moribund decades ago. The AP was handed a virtual monopoly on the gathering and distribution of news. If the AP doesn't take note, as it did when Alito was picked, then the angle that didn't get used is the tree falling in the forest with no one around to hear. The situation is better now. The Internet has several blogs that reported on the limited definition of "diversity" in the mainstream coverage of Kagan. Some even wondered if there were any veterans on the court or asked why all justices graduates of Ivy League schools, which made "old school tie" more important than "old boys network."

I hope I live long enough to see an atheist named to the court. I want to see how the story is framed.

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