There is an old saying in the world of mass media theory (especially if you hang around the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) that “technology shapes content.” This is certainly true in the world of newspapers. Ask any layout specialist or headline writer who has ever tried to make the move from a broadsheet newspaper to one that uses a tabloid format.
So I could not help but notice the splashy main headline on today’s edition of the express, which is the free mini-tabloid The Washington Post publishes these days for commuters and/or people with thin wallets or short attention spans. In gigantic letters, someone on the express copy desk had summed up an ocean of ink dedicated to the U.S. Senate hearings on the chief justice nominee with this simple statement: “ROBERTS & ROE.”
Our nation’s political life does seem to have all boiled down to that, if you read the major papers or turn on the cable news shows.
The MSM bottom line (click here for a quick Howie Kurtz summary) seems to be that Roe is a lock-solid decision and that overturning it is unthinkable, which rather raises the question of why, after all these years, people still have to worry about it in 70-something point headline type.
Perhaps that rather large headline means something else. Perhaps the nation is rather divided on the issue. Perhaps journalists really do realize, deep down, that about 20 percent of the population — 10 percent on each extreme — truly has its mind made up and the great muddled middle is lost in a storm of emotions and the vague wordings of agenda-driven pollsters. And perhaps there is more to this than politics.
Thus, I also thought that it was interesting that my morning email version of the Post including the following assignment in its topical index:
John G. Roberts Jr. testified yesterday that he believes that the Constitution protects the right to privacy, the legal underpinning of the nation’s landmark abortion law, but he refused to say whether he would vote to uphold Roe v. Wade if he is confirmed as chief justice of the United States.
(By Amy Goldstein and Charles Babington, The Washington Post)
Religion does, of course, show up over and over in the story, and not just in the drumbeat paragraphs about abortion rights. I thought it was interesting that the senators flashed back to the old Bob Jones University case about God and interracial dating. Thus, the Post reports that:
One of the few issues on which Roberts dissented yesterday from Reagan-era policy involved the case of Bob Jones University, in which that administration unsuccessfully argued that the fundamentalist school qualified for federal tax breaks under a law passed by Congress despite its ban on interracial dating. In a 1983 memo, Roberts wrote that the administration “did not feel Congress had given the IRS the authority” to remove the school’s tax-exempt status. Yesterday, he told senators he did not believe the Reagan administration had taken “the correct position” on Bob Jones.
This is interesting to me, since I was involved in graduate seminars in Church-State Studies during the years that led up to that decision. At the time, all kinds of church-state experts — left and right — were worried about the Bob Jones case, in part thinking that bad cases make for bad law. It is possible that the Reagan team was thinking what the church-state people were thinking — that it is dangerous to give the government the power to single out and punish a religious group for its doctrines, even if those doctrines are wacko and-or vile. Religious liberty is built by protecting the rights of a lot of people with whom you might not want to share a vacation or even eternity.
Anyway, it does seem that the religion-abortion link is going to continue through the likely outcome of the Roberts hearings, which is a confirmation divided along party lines. The Post also wants to make sure that we know that they know who thinks they won in the first round of this verbal test.
Outside the hearing room, Roberts’s handling of the abortion issue appeared to frustrate abortion rights proponents, while pleasing antiabortion groups. In front of the Capitol, about a dozen Planned Parenthood Protesters wore shirts emblazoned with the words “Answer the Question.” Kate Michelman, the former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said, “I don’t think we have any clarity yet on his views about Roe and privacy as it relates to reproductive freedom as a fundamental right.”
Jay Sekulow of the conservative American Center for Law and Justice said Roberts’s description of when courts should be willing to rethink precedents “left the door open” to the possibility he might vote to overturn Roe. “As someone who takes a pro-life position, I was extremely pleased with the answers he gave,” he said.
Ah, the usual suspects.
UPDATE: You can, of course, turn to Amy Welborn and the Open Book crowd for mucho commentary on Roberts and his “JFK moment” in the hearings.