CNN and MSNBC Applaud Elena Kagan's Capitol Hill Comedy Hour

In covering Elena Kagan's confirmation hearings, CNN and MSNBC have repeatedly lauded the Supreme Court nominee for her "flashes of humor" and "disarming ease."

In tune with the reverberations of the network morning shows' echo chamber, correspondents like CNN's Dana Bash and anchors like MSNBC's Rachel Maddow on Tuesday praised Kagan for her ability to inject humor into otherwise "hollow and vapid" hearings and charm hostile Republican senators into docility.

"But just on a color note, what struck me, Candy, has been the way Elena Kagan has tried to use a sense of humor to really disarm the senators, particularly Republicans," noted Bash.

Maddow's guest, Dahlia Lithwick of the liberal Slate magazine, gushed over Kagan's "gut-wrenching" sense of humor, her masterful ability to balance "seriousness and levity and humor," and her "disarming and charming and kind of likeable" personality.

"A likeable liberal. Dear me, I know," quipped Maddow.

Anchoring the live coverage of the hearings, MSNBC's Chris Matthews turned to Susan Page, USA Today Washington bureau chief, who applauded Kagan's performance:
You know, it's interesting since Kagan argued this case she feels pretty comfortable with it and you see, I think, a more free-flowing exchange between the senator and the nominee there then we've seen on some others. Kagan famously called these hearings "vapid and hollow" in the past but we've seen some flashes of humor here this morning. And interestingly, Kagan said that she thought it would be a terrific idea to have TV cameras in the Supreme Court.

On her eponymous program, CNN's Campbell Brown aired Kagan's playful banter with Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) before querying CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin: "So, apart from the fact that she has got a sense of humor, what did we really learn today about Elena Kagan?"

Over on MSNBC's "The Ed Show," substitute host Christopher Hayes, editor of the left-wing magazine The Nation and husband of a White House counselor, reckoned that the most newsworthy part of the hearings so far has been Kagan's charm:

Perhaps the most notable thing to report from today's hearing is that Kagan is, as advertised, really a charmer. The nominee who once derided this process as, quote, "vapid and hollow" was no doubt probably and possibly justifiably in for a cold reception. But today, Kagan displayed the disarming ease, wit and knack for a well-timed joke that have made her so uniformly well-liked by her colleagues in other endeavors.

On Wednesday's "American Morning," Bash continued to push the humor narrative, noting, "Throughout the day, Kagan tried to disarm senators by interjecting with humor...and Kagan really made a point early on, on setting that light-hearted tone, interjecting all the time with quick whips and -- quips, I should say, and then witty comments."

MSNBC "The Daily Rundown" co-hosts Savannah Guthrie and Chuck Todd wrapped up the Wednesday program with a recap of the hearing's most "humorous" moments, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) discussing the latest installment of the Twilight saga. (h/t MRC intern Matt Hadro)

There's nothing wrong with color commentary, but the media's emphasis on humanizing Kagan is coming at the expense of critical reporting on her nomination hearings and what little light she's willing to shed in the hearings about how she'll approach constitutional issues on the bench.

Transcripts of the relevant portions of the cited programs can be found below:
MSNBC
NewsLive
6/29/10

10:54 a.m.

CHRIS MATTHEWS: And this came out in the president's State of the Union where he took a swipe at the Supreme Court with Samuel Alito and other justices there and they didn't like it.

SUSAN PAGE, USA Today Washington bureau chief: They didn't. You know, it's interesting since Kagan argued this case she feels pretty comfortable with it and you see, I think, a more free-flowing exchange between the Senator and the nominee there then we've seen on some others. Kagan famously called these hearings "vapid and hollow" in the past but we've seen some flashes of humor here this morning. And interestingly, Kagan said that she thought it would be a terrific idea to have TV cameras in the Supreme Court. If she gets confirmed that's an issue where she'll have some real issues with her colleagues.

CNN
Newsroom
6/29/10

12:24 p.m.

DANA BASH, CNN correspondent: Well, first, just on substance, I want to point out what John did just at the beginning of this conversation, that what Elena Kagan revealed or maybe more to the point, clarified, was in the memo that she had scribbled notes, "KKK, NRA," as a bad organization. That has been flying around conservative circles as an ah-ha moment. And when they saw these documents I think about a week or two weeks ago when they were released by the Clinton library as proof that she is just a liberal, what she told us just now, what she told Senator Kyl, is that she was taking notes on somebody else's conversation. So if that's the case, that certainly appears to deflate that particular argument that conservatives have been making. But just on a color note, what struck me, Candy, has been the way Elena Kagan has tried to use a sense of humor to really disarm the senators, particularly Republicans. And Jeff knows her, so this may not seem a surprise to him.

But just for example, when John Kyl came out after the break, there nobody was in the room and he said "I guess nobody wants to hear my questions" and without missing a beat, she said "maybe nobody wants to hear my answers." And another time, Senator Hatch was talking about the fact that he and Senator Leahy were having a little disagreement. They're kind of like an old married couple, and I say this respectfully and they would probably agree, and Elena Kagan again without missing a beat saying, "don't worry go ahead, it takes the spotlight off of me." I don't remember seeing that certainly from recent confirmation hearings at this level, not from Sonia Sotomayor, and at least at the beginning, you know, as these nominees are getting comfortable. But it just seems to me the kind of charm she has.

MSNBC
The Ed Show
6/29/10

6:17 p.m.
    
HAYES: Perhaps the most notable thing to report from today's hearing is that Kagan is, as advertised, really a charmer. The nominee who once derided this process as, quote, "vapid and hollow" was no doubt probably and possibly justifiably in for a cold reception. But today, Kagan displayed the disarming ease, wit and knack for a well-timed joke that have made her so uniformly well-liked by her colleagues in other endeavors. Of course, beyond that, we still didn't get that much of an indication of what kind of justice she'd make, although she does support letting cameras into the Supreme Court.

CNN
Campbell Brown
6/29/10

8:24 p.m.

BROWN: It was a long day on Capitol Hill for Elena Kagan. It was day two of her confirmation hearing. It just wrapped up a little while ago. She faced some tough questions on everything from the War on Terror to her politics. Listen to this exchange with Arizona Senator Jon Kyl.

Sen. JON KYL (R-Ariz.): Do you agree with the characterization by some of my colleagues that the current Court is too activist in supporting the position of corporations and Big Business?

ELENA KAGAN, Supreme Court nominee: Senator Kyl, I would not want to characterize the current court in any way. I hope one day to join it.

KYL: And they said you are not political, right?
                    
BROWN: So, apart from the fact that she has got a sense of humor, what did we really learn today about Elena Kagan?

MSNBC
Rachel Maddow
6/29/10

9:30 p.m.

RACHEL MADDOW: And how do you think that Kagan is doing, thus far, as a nominee? Obviously, today was the first day she took questions. It's clear that just from what I saw of the hearings today, that she seems very relaxed.

DAHLIA LITHWICK, Slate senior editor: Relaxed, funny. You know, she brought the room to a standstill, just gut-wrenching laughter. At some point, Lindsey Graham asked her, what were you doing when the Christmas Day bomber was caught on Christmas Day? And she said, like pretty much all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant. I mean, you know, people were applauding. She`s very funny, Rachel. She`s very disarming. But at the same time, I think she does a good job of saying, look, I take the law very seriously. At one point, she was questioned about her passions and she couldn't get passionate about anything but the law. So, she's doing a good job of balancing seriousness and levity and humor, and I think real charm.

The thing I really am enjoying this time around is it sometimes feels like these hearings shrink the nominee down to a smaller version of who they are. This is actually letting someone who looks good on paper but is hard to love in paper become quite human and warm and big luminous smile. And so I don't know if that's working for everyone, but it's quite clear that the senators are finding her disarming and charming and kind of likeable.

MADDOW: A likeable liberal. Dear me, I know. She won`t call herself liberal but the press is going to have a hard time understanding how to report on this. Dahlia Lithwick, senior editor and legal correspondent for Slate magazine, I always really appreciate your insight on days like this. Thanks a lot, Dahlia.

CNN
American Morning
6/30/10

7:17 a.m.

BASH: Throughout the day, Kagan tried to disarm senators by interjecting with humor.

Sen. TOM COBURN (R-Okla.): This is softball.

KAGAN: You promise?

COBURN: I promise.

Sen. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-S.C.) I just ask you where you're at on Christmas.

KAGAN: You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.

BASH: And Kagan really made a point early on, on setting that light-hearted tone, interjecting all the time with quick whips and -- quips, I should say, and then witty comments. And you know, it really did change the tenor of things, for example, when one of her starkest opponents, Senator Tom Coburn, who sits here was trying to ask her some questions she wouldn't answer it. Instead of really going after her, he made a joke. He followed her lead and said "maybe you're dancing so much, maybe you should be on 'Dancing with the Stars.'" John and Kiran.
--Alex Fitzsimmons is a News Analysis intern at the Media Research Center. Click here to follow him on Twitter.