A really embarrassing effort from Jonathan Chait:
Somewhat belatedly, I’ve noticed that numerous commentators have decided to label Jeffrey Rosen’s online article about Sonia Sotomayor from a few weeks ago as “gossip.” The description has been employed by left-wing or liberalcommentators like Glenn Greenwald of Salon, Adam Serwer of the American Prospect, and Matthew Yglesias of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Today it’s repeated by right-wing columnist Charles Krauthammer.
“Gossip” is an effective label for those who wish to denigrate Rosen’s reporting or the reputation of TNR, but it’s an inaccurate one. Gossip is unverified information. Gossip is something you hear all the time — say, Senator X mistreats his staff. No serious publication can pass off gossip as reporting. However, if you actually speak with the principles first-hand — you interview staffers for Senator X who report that he mistreats them — then what you have is reporting. That’s what Jeff did. He spoke first-hand with several of Sotomayor’s former clerks, who provided a mixed picture. Unsurprisingly, they declined to put their names on the record, but that’s utterly standard for people who are speaking in unflattering terms about people they worked with or for.
It ends with a nice flourish: “You may not think the issue ought to disqualify Sotomayor — I don’t, and Jeff doesn’t either — but to call it “gossip” is grossly unfair.”
This post is a real embarassment for a number of reasons. First, there was a marked difference between the initial Rosen piece and the New York Times piece. From the comments section at the TNR, a rundown of the “sources” for Rosen’s piece:
one former clerk
Her former clerks
some of her Second Circuit colleagues
range of people
former law clerks
one former Second Circuit clerk
former clerks for other judges
one former clerk for another judge
But, mind you, their deep thoughts about Sotomayor’s temperament or abilities, completely off the record, free from any responsibility or allegiance to the truth, just can’t be called gossip. Why, Rosen assured us they are all well-meaning. But since we don’t know who they are, how can we accurately judge their assessments? Wendy Long, who spent the last week trashing Sotomayor as a radical activist, was also a clerk on the 2nd Circuit. Was she there during Sotomayor’s tenure? If so, was she one of Rosen’s sources? Wouldn’t it make you view some of the remarks in Rosen’s piece differently if she was one of his sources? Are you starting to understand yet why printing gossip from unnamed clerks is problematic? By way of comparison, here are the sources in the NY Times piece:
said Douglas Kmiec, a law professor at Pepperdine University.
said H. Raymond Fasano, a Republican immigration lawyer
said Sheema Chaudhry, who appeared before Judge Sotomayor in an asylum case last year.
Gerald Lefcourt, a New York defense lawyer,
Judge Guido Calabresi, a former dean of Yale Law School who taught Ms. Sotomayor
said Judge Jon O. Newman
Judge Richard C. Wesley, another colleague
Does anyone notice a difference in the sourcing of Rosen’s piece and the NYT piece that Chait would have you believe is the same exact thing? Because I see a stark difference. Rather than having to rest on Rosen’s vague assurances that the sources are altruistic and earnest liberals who only want the best for the Obama administration, when I read the NY Times piece, I know who has said what, what their relationship to Sotomayor is, and how it is germane to the discussion.
The second reason that Chait’s work here was an embarrassment is that one of the people he called out was Glenn Greenwald. In fact, the title of Chait’s post is “Is the New York Times Printing Gossip?” (an excellent use of the Cavuto, btw). Now, I’m no journalist, but if I was going to address my critics in such a manner, I would check to see what they had to say on the issue. I suppose the first way I would do that is to check their websites.
And lo and behold, using the mystical powers of the internet, I have found my way to Glenn Greenwald’ site, and what do I discover? Why, a long piece discussing the very NYT piece that so interests Chait, and Greenwald’s lengthy explanation of the difference between what Liptak and company have done and what Rosen did with his drive-by smearing of Sotomayor. And it was all there for hours before Chait threw up his weak defense of Rosen. I’ll quote some of it here, since it is apparently so hard to find:
The excuse journalists typically give for indiscriminately granting anonymity — we have no choice because it’s the only way people will speak, and anonymous quotes are better than none — does not, even if factually true, justify anonymity, since anonymous attacks are often worse than nothing: they’re inherently unreliable because they’re made without accountability. But as the above passages demonstrate, the excuse is often factually false, as was obviously true when offered by Jeffrey Rosen. Journalists use anonymity not because they can’t get anyone to speak on the record, but because, like Rosen, they’re too slothful to do the work to find on-the-record sources and they crave the sort of sensationalism that is possible only when someone is allowed to spout inflammatory garbage without having their names attached.
You’ll notice that the NY Times piece doesn’t have any anonymous people calling her a bully or questioning her intellect. Funny, that.
Finally, this piece just smacks of institutional ass-covering. As Chait notes, no serious publication can pass off gossip as reporting, which is precisely the problem here. That is what Rosen did, and when you place his piece next to the NYT piece, it is glaringly obvious. How Chait thinks a side-by-side comparison of the two pieces makes the case for Rosen is beyond me (and I bet Rosen is thrilled- his handiwork is finally being overshadowed by the hysterical reactions from Newt, Rush, Tancredo, et. al, and Chait comes along and stirs things up again).
But here is what is even more depressing, and Chait simply doesn’t get it. I’m not a lawyer, and I’d wager that neither are the majority of my readers or the majority of the TNR’s subscribers. In order for us to be able to make sense of the Sotomayor confirmation, we need to rely on people who are lawyers and who do understand the arcane procedures, the mountains of precedent and case law, etc. I don’t want a radical with a poor mind on the court, and I don’t intend to support Sotomayor just because she has a (D) after her name. I’d like to know why she did or did not make the right decision in certain cases, but the only way I am going to be able to learn that is from folks like Mr. Rosen. Jeffrey Rosen has not only legal training, but he is a skilled educator and he has a platform at TNR from which to educate a large number of people about Sotomayor. He is the kind of person who should play a vital role in informing the American people.
And what does he do? Instead of using his years of experience, his expertise on the subject matter, and his megaphone to inform us, he passes off gossip from anonymous clerks, admits he hasn’t read enough of Sotomayor’s decisions to have a real opinion, and then acts surprised when Republicans and conservatives echo the smears in his piece, and when challenged, they toss out the charming phrase “even the liberal New Republic thinks this.” That was Rosen’s contribution to this debate, and it has far overshadowed anything he has or will do on this subject.
And Chait either can’t figure out why that is problematic, or worse, he just doesn’t care.