Oh, for a follow-up question to Justice Thomas

Anyone who has ever tried to do media criticism knows that it is so, so easy to complain about the work of others, especially when you do not know all of the factors that led to a particular story being reported, written and edited in a particular way.

This is why you will rarely see your GetReligionistas criticize reporters — repeat, reporters — by name. We prefer to attribute whatever is published or broadcast to the news organization as a whole. Thus, I will talk about a story produced by the “Washington Post team” instead of pinning that story on the reporter whose byline is at the top.

People who have never worked in mainstream newsrooms often question why we do this.

Why? Well, any experienced reporter knows what its like to turn in a perfectly balanced, fair-minded story and then have the copy desk — perhaps because the amount of space in that day’s paper changed — cut off the final third of your piece, leaving it shamefully unbalanced.

Also, there is no way to know if a reporter begged editors for additional time to conduct interviews that would provided needed balance in a piece, or perhaps to run down needed background material, and was denied the opportunity to do so. There’s no way to know if a reporter made a particular error or if that error was edited into the piece by someone else. There’s no way to know if a reporter had fantastic material that she or he wanted to include in a story, but editors simply said, “No way.” Perhaps the reporter asked fantastic follow-up questions, but was denied the chance to put the results into digital ink.

I thought about these realities when reading the recent New York Times piece about a rare public appearance by Justice Clarence Thomas in which he consented to answer some rather probing questions about the law, race and, yes, his faith.

At least twice in this piece I found myself wanting to scream, “A follow-up question, a follow-up question, my cyber-kingdom for a follow-up question!” Let’s see if GetReligion readers have similar responses.

First, a word of background: People who have followed his career may or may not know that the young Thomas was a Catholic, then for a decade or so was active as a conservative Episcopalian — the church affiliation of this wife, Ginni Thomas. However, in the late 1990s he returned to Communion with the Church of Rome, although there have been reports that he frequently attends Anglican services with his wife, as well.

Early on in this particular interview, Thomas noted that when he was young he found himself part of a minority inside a minority in a strange land. He was an African-American Catholic living in the Deep South. That information preceded this fascinating passage:

The occasion for the interview was the Constitution’s 225th anniversary and the publication of a new book called “America’s Unwritten Constitution.” Its author, Akhil Reed Amar, a law professor at Yale, questioned Justice Thomas for more than an hour.

When Professor Amar mentioned that there are, for the first time in history, no Protestants on the Supreme Court, Justice Thomas changed the subject.

“We’re all from the Ivy League,” he said. “That seems to be more relevant than what faith we are.” (Justice Thomas is one of six Catholics on the court. The other three justices are Jewish.)

Oh, if only Amar had asked if — from Thomas’ point of view — this remark actually represented a change in the subject.

Might the justice have meant exactly what he said? In other words, when describing the true religious affiliations of those on the court, perhaps it is more accurate to note that they are all from the Ivy League, as opposed to saying that they are either Catholics or Jews. Are all of the Catholics on the court, for example, practicing members of the same church, when push comes to shove?

That passage led directly into the following:

(Thomas) did say that religion played an important role in the nation’s founding and in his own life.

“I grew up in a religious environment, and I’m proud of it,” he said. “I was going to be a priest; I’m proud of it. And I thank God I believe in God, or I would probably be enormously angry right now.”

Oh, for another follow-up question — which may or may not have been an option for the Times team. I mean, I think there is a good chance that Justice Thomas is not interested in being interviewed by anyone from the Times, a stance that is common among many traditional Catholics these days.

This Times story, of course, connects Thomas’ anger with the the sexual-harassment storm that surrounded his confirmation to the court. That may be true, but that is a matter of interpretation, not basic reporting. One thing is clear: It would have been very interesting to know (a) the sources of anger that trouble this justice and (b) how his faith helps him cope with them.

The result is a fascinating story, yet one that remains thoroughly haunted by questions that were not asked and, thus, were not answered.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Mike

    It seems pretty obvious that no reporters were asking questions, but instead Amar was completely in control of the interview. So I’m not sure it is fair to criticize Liptak for not asking questions he couldn’t ask or snidely suggesting Thomas wouldn’t speak to the NYT, since Thomas may not have known that the NYT was even there.

  • tmatt

    MIKE:
    Read the post again. I know that and I addressed that.

  • Julia

    Somewhere I saw an observation that having Jewish and Catholic justices is interesting for this angle:
    both faiths have traditions of analyzing and commenting on Scripture instead of just looking at it literally.
    That ‘s perfect training for the law.

  • sari

    Julia,
    Even truer, both have well-defined systems of jurisprudence to which their followers are expected to adhere -and- these legal systems are dynamic, not static.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Julia,
    This is probably over-generalization, but I think, if anything, it’s the style of interpretation and analysis that matters. I rarely meet anyone better at parsing, citing, and arguing Scripture than a “literalist” Protestant, but the interpretations are usually quite individualistic and depend almost entirely on the texts being cited. When I read Jewish and Catholic commentary, though, I’m struck by the constant reference to past interpretations and precedent. There’s a very strong value placed on understanding and being able to cite past interpretations, rather than just being able to construct the best argument from the original source. (Indeed, in many conservative Protestant communities, citing a source other than Scripture is the fastest way to *lose* the argument.)

    But – with apologies to tmatt – our conversation has now wandered far, far away from the journalism. :)

  • Ted Seeber

    Those of us who recognize the fact that most class warfare actually comes from the upper class- would certainly find the fact that the court is full of Ivy Leaguers to be quite relevant. Especially those of us who doubt greatly that getting into the Ivy League means anything more than your parents had money.


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