Sotomayor Flashback #1 of 3: On First Night She Prompted More 'Conservative' Than 'Liberal' Labels

Re-post from Tuesday night, May 26, 2009:

Amazingly, after showing no reluctance in 2005 to describe John Roberts and Sam Alito as “conservative” or worse, the Tuesday network evening newscasts, particularly ABC and NBC, applied more “conservative” tags to Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor's critics than “liberal” labels to her, as the coverage suggested calling her a liberal was a hasty judgment from accusatory partisans. In total, ABC's World News and the NBC Nightly News combined for a piddling two uses of the “liberal” term while issuing a “conservative” tag eight times. (CBS viewers heard “liberal” four times and “conservative” just once.)

Setting up a look at Sotomayer's record, ABC anchor Charles Gibson fretted about how conservatives had “already” assessed her: “Even before the President announced his decision, conservatives were reviewing Judge Sotomayor's judicial record and were already saying she would be an activist on the court.” Jan Crawford Greenburg then framed any notion of Sotomayer as liberal as based on accusations from conservatives: “...which conservatives have called code for,” “...conservatives today seized on this comment” and “already, conservatives have jumped on the decision.”

Over on NBC, Pete Williams presumed a conflict between her rise from poverty and being liberal: “Despite her remarkable personal odyssey, Judge Sotomayor is already being called a liberal activist by some conservative groups.” (That sentence included NBC's only liberal label utterance during four segments.)


“Conservatives view Sotomayor as a liberal with an agenda,” CBS's Wyatt Andrews relayed before he cautioned the nominee “is generally seen as liberal, but experts say is not always predictable.” The CBS Evening News, however, came closest to an unattributed description of Sotomayer as a liberal when anchor Katie Couric, who also trumpeted her “amazing life story,”  asked Jeff Greenfield: “Will she really change the make-up of the court, or have an impact on some hot-button issues because many people are saying that Justice Souter is just being replaced by another liberal?”

But earlier in the newscast, CBS reporter Priya David failed to make a connection between a socialist and Sotomayer's views. As the quote from Sotomayer's college yearbook was enlarged, David concluded her review of the judge's life story:

Her past also offers a hint of what's ahead. From her Princeton University yearbook, Sotomayor's chosen quotation: “I am not a champion of lost causes, but of causes not yet won.”

David didn't name the author of the quote, but the image showed: “Norman Thomas.” That would be the same Norman Thomas who was the Socialist Party presidential nominee from  1928 through 1948 (and also the grandfather of Newsweek's Evan Thomas).

Neither ABC or NBC mentioned or showed the yearbook page and/or quote. Beliefnet, the MRC's Rich Noyes noticed, pointed out that the White House distributed yearbook page image to the news media.

In relating conservative criticism of Sotomayer, all three newscasts at some point did report her “the court of appeals is where policy is made” boast, the controversy over the New Haven reverse discrimination case and her proposition that it's a good thing her ethnicity shapes her decisions and leads to better decisions than would be made by a white male.

Earlier Tuesday NewsBusters post: “Flashback: Nets Were Quick to Tag Alito and Roberts as 'Ultra' and 'Hardline' 'Conservatives.'”

Labeling rundowns for the Tuesday, May 26 newscasts:

ABC's World News: (one “liberal,” five “conservative”):

Jake Tapper: “He has called this empathy in the past, which conservatives have called code for liberals creating laws from the bench.”

Charles Gibson: “Even before the President announced his decision, conservatives were reviewing Judge Sotomayor's judicial record and were already saying she would be an activist on the court.”

Jan Crawford Greenburg: “Conservatives today seized on this comment Sotomayor made four years ago when she was a federal appeals court judge.”
Sotomayer: “Court of Appeals is where policy is made. And I know this is on tape, and I should never say that, because we don't make law, I know.”

Greenburg, re New Haven: “Already, conservatives have jumped on the decision.”

Greenburg: “Conservatives point a to a speech she gave in 2001 at the University of California at Berkeley law school, when she suggested her ethnicity shapes her decisions.”

CBS Evening News (four “liberal,” one “conservative”):

Wyatt Andrews: “While Senate Republicans were restrained in their reactions today, conservatives view Sotomayor as a liberal with an agenda -- an agenda captured in the judge's own words when describing the courts of appeal.”

Andrews: “Sotomayor is known to favor abortion rights and in her 700 opinions is generally seen as liberal, but experts say is not always predictable.”

Couric: “Will she really change the make-up of the court, or have an impact on some hot-button issues because many people are saying that Justice Souter is just being replaced by another liberal?”

Jeff Greenfield: “We simply really don't know whether Sotomayor's kind of liberalism on the bench is the same as David Souter's or she'll have very different views.”

NBC Nightly News (one “liberal,” three “conservative”):

Pete Williams: “Despite her remarkable personal odyssey, Judge Sotomayor is already being called a liberal activist by some conservative groups.”

Pete Williams: “But some conservatives criticize her for saying in a 2001 speech, quote, 'a wise Latino 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.'”

David Gregory: “The idea here that this is, in the minds of so many conservatives, a real activist.”

Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center