Wednesday's CBS Evening News devoted about 20 seconds to anchor Russ Mitchell highlighting how “it was revealed today” -- as if it were some kind of cover-up being exposed -- “that the [Supreme] Court's newest member, Justice Samuel Alito, sent a personal thank you note to a conservative Christian leader who supported his nomination.” Mitchell then identified that recipient as James Dobson, of Focus on the Family, and stressed how he “is a leading opponent of abortion.” What did Alito write that CBS considered so newsworthy? Mitchell relayed: “Dobson read the note in his radio program today, quoting Alito as saying he appreciated those who prayed for him and he'll remember the 'trust' that's been placed in him." But a reading of the actual letter (reprinted below) suggests Dobson just got a form letter Alito sent to all of those who congratulated him on his confirmation, not a coded commitment to Dobson's agenda on abortion.
Neither ABC or NBC mentioned the matter on their Wednesday night newscasts, but that could just be due to the AP not distributing a dispatch on it until late in the day. The AP's Colleen Slevin allowed a Supreme Court spokesman to explain how the same language appeared, in Slevin's words, “in many replies he wrote to congratulatory letters." Slevin, however, felt compelled to consider potential improprieties, turning to a professor who “said Alito's letter did not appear to violate ethical standards,” before she related how “Americans United for Separation of Church and State called the letter 'grossly inappropriate.'” (More from the AP story, the text of the letter and CBS's item in full, all follow.)
About 15 minutes into the March 1 CBS Evening News, following a short item on the Supreme Court taking up the Texas redistricting case, substitute anchor Russ Mitchell, the regular co-host of The Early Show on Saturdays, announced:
“It was revealed today that the [Supreme] Court's newest member, Justice Samuel Alito, sent a personal thank you note to a conservative Christian leader who supported his nomination. James Dobson, the founder of the group Focus on the Family is a leading opponent of abortion. Dobson read the note in his radio program today quoting Alito as saying he appreciated those who prayed for him and he'll remember the trust that's been placed in him.”
Late Wednesday, the AP distributed a story on the matter (Yahoo's current posting times the story to 7:15pm EST, but I believe it replaced an earlier posting), “Dobson Says Alito Sent Thank-You Note.” Denver-based reporter Colleen Slevin at least relayed how Dobson was hardly a unique recipient: “Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said Alito's note was in response to a letter Dobson sent congratulating him on his confirmation. She said his pledge to 'keep in mind the trust that has been placed in me' was included in many replies he wrote to congratulatory letters.”
Slevin, however, felt compelled to consider potential improprieties: “David Yalof, a political science professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of a book on Supreme Court vacancies, said Alito's letter did not appear to violate ethical standards. 'I think it's a very carefully worded letter, and I don't think any of it crosses the line,' he said. 'As long as Alito didn't (say) there is any obligation or debt owed, I don't think it is a violation of judicial canon.'”
So why the news story?
Slevin proceeded to give space to how “Americans United for Separation of Church and State called the letter 'grossly inappropriate.' 'This note strongly suggests that Alito is carrying out a right-wing agenda instead of being a justice for all,' said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of the group.”
Slevin ended her article by bringing up Dobson's political agenda:
“Focus on the Family declined to release a copy of the letter but confirmed the wording read by Dobson.
“Dobson had urged his listeners to support the nominations of Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts. On Wednesday, he said that support had 'affected history' by helping put both men on the court in time to hear a pending case on an abortion procedure that opponents call 'partial-birth abortion.'
“Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian ministry based in Colorado Springs, says Dobson's show, its other broadcasts and its publications reach more than 200 million people worldwide.”
The Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph, in a March 1 Web story headlined “Alito thank-you note to Dobson at center of controversy,” posted the scandalous text of the letter:
Dear Dr. Dobson:
This is just a short note to express my heartfelt thanks to you and the entire staff of Focus on the Family for your help and support during the past few challenging months.
I would also greatly appreciate it if you would convey my appreciation to the good people from all parts of the country who wrote to tell me that they were praying for me and for my family during this period.
As I said when I spoke at my formal investiture at the White House last week, the prayers of so many people from around the country were a palpable and powerful force.
As long as I serve on the Supreme Court I will keep in mind the trust that has been placed in me.
I hope that we’ll have the opportunity to meet personally at some point in the future.
In the meantime my entire family and I hope that you and the Focus on the Family staff know how we appreciate all that you have done.
END Reprint of letter