Flashback: Big Media’s Big Double-Standard on SCOTUS Blockbusters

June 24th, 2023 8:35 AM

Next week marks the end of the Supreme Court’s current term, traditionally when the most consequential opinions of the year are released. But how the media will present those decisions to the public greatly depends on whether they turn out to be victories for liberals or conservatives.

A look back at four of the biggest blockbuster cases of the past 25 years — on abortion, same-sex marriage, ObamaCare and the 2000 presidential election — shows that when liberals win a big victory, the media joyfully celebrate the “historic” final word, and insist conservatives should accept the new “law of the land.”

But when conservatives win a case, there’s no talk about respecting the Court’s opinion. Instead, journalists fulminate about a discredited Court and lecture that the ruling has forever damaged the Court’s credibility and legitimacy. A quick review:


Bush v. Gore (2000): After the media briefly declared George W. Bush the presidential winner on election night, liberals hoped the liberal-dominated Florida Supreme Court might impose recount rules that would permit Al Gore to carry that state and thereby win the White House. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on December 12, 2000, that any recount must treat all ballots equally, and that there was no practical way of doing this and still have the result certified before the Electoral College met on December 18.

That meant the state’s original certification of Bush as the winner would stand, and he would be the next President. Liberal journalists cried foul, and branded the Court’s decision as political. “How do we move forward, look back at the Supreme Court and not say this was a partisan vote?” NBC’s Matt Lauer wondered the next morning on Today.

His co-host Katie Couric concurred: “How badly damaged is the high court in the wake of this?” she asked Tim Russert.

The New York Times proclaimed: “This will long be remembered as an election decided by a conservative Supreme Court in favor of a conservative candidate,” while on ABC, correspondent Terry Moran argued that “this ruling almost opens up more wounds rather than closing them.”

No TV news correspondent was more apoplectic than CBS’s Dan Rather, who called the decision “stupefying” in a December 12 special report. On the next night’s CBS Evening News, Rather refused to acknowledge Bush as the lawful President-elect, saying instead that Bush was “handed the presidency” by “a sharply split and, some say, politically and ideologically motivated U.S. Supreme Court.”

On ABC, Sam Donaldson grumbled that the decision “will not be accepted with any sort of feeling that the court has rendered a just and fair verdict.” On the December 13 World News Tonight, correspondent Aaron Brown predicted a “diminished” Supreme Court: “Two hundred years ago Alexander Hamilton wrote that the Court, without an army or a vast treasury, had only its judgment. There are many people who worry tonight that that precious commodity has been diminished.”

■ ObamaCare upheld (2012): On June 28, 2012, in the midst of Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, the Supreme Court ruled on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, aka “ObamaCare,” which conservatives had legally challenged since the law passed in 2010. Bush-appointed Chief Justice John Roberts authored the 5-4 decision himself, upholding the law as a constitutional application of Congress’s taxing authority.

Journalists had been poised to trash Roberts if he voided ObamaCare, but pivoted to fawning compliments when they realized that liberals had triumphed. “This opinion did give heart to many Court watchers who’ve been concerned that this institution of government was at risk of becoming just another hyper-partisan place in American politics,” ABC’s Terry Moran told viewers on that night’s World News.

“Today, Lawrence Tribe, the Harvard professor who can say he taught Barack Obama and John Roberts at Harvard Law School, said that with this decision, crossing over to join the liberals, Roberts might have saved the institution,” Brian Williams cheered on the NBC Nightly News.

On CBS, Evening News anchor Scott Pelley toasted Roberts as the “man of the hour.”

MSNBC’s Chris Matthews could hardly contain himself: “Let me start with one of the great days in this country’s history,” he crowed on Hardball. “Today’s hero: Chief Justice John Roberts, who walked to the forefront of history and who said ‘yes’ to progress and ‘no’ to the role prescribed for him by the Right....Let’s start today by standing back and looking back at this bold, defiant, grand decision by Mr. Roberts and his Supreme Court.”

By giving liberals what they wanted, Roberts “looked like a statesman,” Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick exulted on the June 29 Good Morning America.

Time magazine rewarded Roberts with its July 16 cover story, “Roberts Rules,” which it raced to print early. Writer David von Drehle applauded the Chief Justice’s “virtuoso performance,” effusively adding that “not since King Solomon offered to split the baby has a judge engineered a slicker solution to a bitterly divisive dispute.”

“The Chief Justice’s ruling confounded a political world primed for Armageddon,” von Drehle continued. “What Roberts managed to do with Obamacare vindicated the virtue of compromise in an era of Occupiers, Tea Partyers and litmus-testing special interests.”

■ Gay Marriage Legalized (2015): By 2015, same-sex marriage was permitted in 36 states; on June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court decided that it was a violation of the 14th Amendment for any couples to be denied a marriage license in the remaining 14 states. As with the ObamaCare ruling three years earlier, the media swiftly touted the correctness and authority of the Court in making this ruling.

“This is one of the greatest civil rights issues of our time, and Justice Kennedy cemented his legacy as a gay rights champion,” CNN’s Pamela Brown trumpeted soon after the decision was announced.

On NBC that Friday night, anchor Lester Holt called the ruling “historic” and “profound.” CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley touted the Court’s ruling as “one of the most momentous civil rights decisions in its history.”

According to Pelley: “June 26, 2015 will be remembered as the day ‘same-sex marriage’ began to disappear from our national conversation. From now on, it’s likely to be known just as ‘marriage.’”                        

On World News Tonight, ABC’s Terry Moran cast the ruling as inevitable: “You can’t say ‘no’ to the Constitution at the end of the day, and this is now constitutional law in America.”

On ABC’s This Week on Sunday, June 28, Matthew Dowd recommended obedience: “The Supreme Court gets to decide what’s in the Constitution. You may not like it and you may not agree with it, but that’s the Constitution.”

Opposition to the Court’s decision would just discredit those on the wrong side of history, some journalists suggested. On Monday’s CBS This Morning (June 29), New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor said the GOP presidential candidates were in “a tough spot” because “they don’t really want to be seen as throwbacks.”

On CNN that same morning, anchor Carol Costello had her own advice for Republicans: “Wouldn’t it be best, though, just to say, ‘You know, the Supreme Court has decided, we have to listen, it’s the law of the land, let’s move on’?”

Roe v. Wade overturned (2022): Nearly fifty years after the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision eliminated most state restrictions on abortion, the Court ruled on June 24, 2022 that the original case had been wrongly decided, and that the states were free to decide whether to permit or restrict abortion.

No one talked about accepting the new “law of the land” and moving on. “There are no more black robes....the robes are red and blue,” NBC’s Chuck Todd fumed during live coverage soon after the decision was announced, ominously adding: “There really is a lot of people who believe this is a rigged court.”

“I think the credibility of the Court is now more on the line than ever,” PBS analyst (and Washington Post columnist) Jonathan Capehart similarly warned that night on NewsHour. “The legitimacy of the Court... will be eroded.”

By giving conservatives a win, the Court was just hurting itself: “The court is the most conservative of any court in 75 years at least,” NPR’s longtime Court reporter Nina Totenberg proclaimed on June 25, “and it’s using the whip hand, it seems, to push a pretty conservative — I would actually say very conservative — agenda, and the result isn’t great for the Court as an institution.”

“Four men who will never bear children, and one Handmaiden, decided for an entire country that their Christian doctrine is the only way,” MSNBC host Tiffany Cross smeared on The Cross Connection that same morning.

“There is no way you can argue that the Supreme Court is now not just another partisan player in national politics,” USA Today’s Susan Page said on ABC’s This Week on Sunday. In an opinion column, longtime New York Times legal reporter Linda Greenhouse declared it “a requiem for the Supreme Court.”

The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin blasted: “The Court’s decision is so emphatic, and so contemptuous of the principle of stare decisis, that one wonders whether the unvarnished radicalism of the decision will finally rouse millions of Americans to the threat posed by a court untethered to law, precedent or reason.”

“What does this, sort of hyper-partisan decisions, what do they mean for the Court’s legitimacy?” CNN’s Don Lemon asked on his June 27 show. Legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin warned Lemon that “the Court is in the hands of extremely conservative Republicans.”


When polls show the public increasingly sees the Court as a political institution, blame this sort of schizophrenic news coverage. When journalists relentlessly judge Supreme Court decisions using their own liberal ideological filter, it only proves that it’s the news media which has become the politically contaminated institution.

For more examples from our flashback series, which we call the NewsBusters Time Machine, go here.