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It didn't take long for news organizations to move on from the ethics questions about the Supreme Court.
This week’s soundtrack: Deafheaven - “Vertigo”
I’ve written about the United States Supreme Court in this space before and did so with a lot of hesitancy. Today is no different; I am far from an expert on the U.S. Constitution, the court itself or the law. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to ignore the high court’s decisions during this recent term in contrast to the way that the news media has covered – and subsequently dropped the coverage of – two of the court’s members.
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Over the last few months, ProPublica has documented Clarence Thomas’ and Samuel Alito’s connections to big-money conservative donors (full disclosure: I have friends at ProPublica and consider it to be one of the best news organizations in America). Those connections would ring every ethics bell in the book, but such a book does not exist. In Thomas’ case, he has a very close relationship with conservative megadonor Harlan Crow that included plenty of gifts, trips and other perks. It’s truly mind-boggling to see the breadth of what Crow gave Thomas.
(Thomas is an easy target because his ethics are so blatantly bent. His wife Ginni works with the Council for National Policy, an umbrella group with member groups constantly with cases before the court, but both Thomases have said over and over that they never talk about work with one another, which is tough to reconcile. Ginni – in 2010! Nearly 20 years after his confirmation! – got into a phone back-and-forth with Anita Hill. I wonder if she and Clarence talked about that ordeal. Or about anything, really.
While I’m sympathetic to the logistical idea that spouses are not to be contained when it comes to Supreme Court ethics issues – Martin Ginsburg was a tax lawyer who theoretically could have had business before the court, Jane Roberts has worked with plenty of lawyers and firms with business before the court, etc.– I think it’s important to remember just how involved Ginni Thomas is in the conservative legal-political movement. Hers were among the transcripts of the Jan. 6 investigation; she was involved in the complicated phone trees on that day. Again, it’s fairly reasonable to expect that she and her husband have asked one another “who was that on the phone just now?” at least once. Maybe that spurred a conversation.)
Thomas, for his part, has mostly avoided the topic of his relationship with Crow when asked about it. His allies in Congress – many of whom have benefited from a relationship with Crow themselves – have defended Thomas and Crow himself put forward a weird defense (somehow, looking into this is unconstitutional, I guess). The Crow/Thomas relationship faded out of view since ProPublica’s first reported it in April; legacy media covered it, but it faded after the defenses stopped and other news – the debt ceiling, the submersible, etc. – overtook the questions surrounding the ethics of the court. Thomas knows the news media game well enough to not give too much of a denial to keep the story going. The national news audience has the attention span of a gnat, so the Crow/Thomas story mostly went away.
Samuel Alito did not do this. In fact, he did pretty much the opposite. While ProPublica was finishing its reporting on a story about Alito’s 2008 gifted luxury fishing trip to Alaska with a hedge fund manager, The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by Alito defending said trip. In more than 1,100 words, he defended himself stridently and tried to discredit ProPublica (fun fact: The site has won six Pulitzers). In the op-ed, he wrote that that he barely knows the hedge fund manager who flew him to Alaska – “my recollection is that I have spoken to Mr. Singer on no more than a handful of occasions, all of which (with the exception of small talk during a fishing trip 15 years ago) consisted of brief and casual comments at events attended by large groups” – and he even cited (as a good Supreme Court justice would) two federal statutes of which he definitely was not running afoul. It’s truly a wonderful piece of writing in which a very crusty man got mad before ProPublica even published the piece it references.
Twitter is a dying or dead medium (more on that below), but I do like to remember the good times. As such, Alito’s WSJ piece reminded me of two particular posts. The first is my generation’s name for the Streisand effect (or the “doth protest too much” line from Shakespeare): The human trafficking shirt.
The second, of course, is from the king of Twitter and speaks to something that I immediately think whenever the famously angry Alito writes or says anything.
Alito spent hundreds of words in one of the nation’s foremost newspapers insisting he wasn’t mad. It is bizarre that Alito thought to do it, for sure, but it’s even more bizarre that the WSJ editors decided to run it.
I don’t know the insight that comes to an opinions editor at a major newspaper when looking at pitches (Over at The New York Times, that job sometimes apparently involves getting Jacque Cousteau’s grandson to sorta defend those dunces on the Titan in service of pitching his own underwater research). While I’ve been pitched thousands of times in my journalism career, I have never been pitched by a Supreme Court justice. I certainly never got a prebuttal pitch about an upciming story from a totally different news organization. But, I also have not ever worked at the Wall Street Journal (and probably am not doing my unemployed self any favors right now, in case I ever want to work there).
Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism professor Bill Grueskin, however, has worked there. He told the Times that the paper’s influence is, let’s say, not a one-way street.
“Alito could have issued this as a statement on the SCOTUS website…But the fact that he chose The Journal — and that the editorial page was willing to serve as his loyal factotum — says a great deal about the relationship between the two parties.”
The WSJ opinion page is part of what is considered a network of connected entities – Ginni Thomas has probably worked with or for many of these entities – supporting the conservative movement. It’s not a coincidence that the famously pro-Wall Street (hence the name) paper would be elevating a defense of a hedge fund’s gift to a Supreme Court justice; that interconnectedness is fairly easy to see.
David Roth has written about this over at Defector when the Crow/Thomas story first came out:
Those judges are the product of a farm system designed and funded by a few conservative elites, and are incubated and promoted through a sprawling network of patronage that's a social network and political class unto itself.
The Republican party is hardly alone in its pipeline, as the academic world can be a farm league for the progressive legal and political movements, but the efficacy of that side has been far less than the direct lines that conservatives have drawn in recent decades, as Roth outlines in the Defector piece.
(The web of influence, of course, is more complicated than being bifurcated into Democrats and Republicans. Prominent Democrats have relationships with the corporate world and the Clinton and Obama foundations have, rightfully, been scrutinized for these connections. Michael Bloomberg, of course, is an entity in and of himself that fails to fit within that dichotomy. But, as hard as it is to nail down those loose infrastructures, the conservative legal-political movement is truly something to behold in its power.)
Where this is a problem is that each story seemingly gets lost in the mix, as mentioned above. There were (and are) many ways to track the Alito and Thomas stories, but those stories faded from view quickly. Even in the coverage of the Supreme Court decisions of the last few weeks, the lack of an ethics code has not emerged. The Supreme Court is unelected but it also doesn’t have to abide by any code of ethics at all. This should be a sentence in every single news story about any Supreme Court decision, considering just what we’ve learned over the last three months.
There is a quote in ProPublica’s Alito story that every news organization should notice: “Such trips would be unheard of for the vast majority of federal workers, who are generally barred from taking even modest gifts.” As someone who covered the Hatch Act for 16 years at GovExec, I don’t know that I’ll ever get over the lack of an ethics code at the high court as compared to other – less prominent and less powerful – public servants. As much as Alito cites the legal framework in his op-ed, any layperson can understand that what he did was unethical. Ignorance is not a defense here, but really, there’s nothing to defend because there are no damned ethics rules at the Supreme Court.
After the final decisions of its term last week, we’ll likely stop hearing about the court for a while in the legacy media. While ProPublica has done great work, bigger and better-funded organizations (not the WSJ opinions page, obviously) need to continue to cover the court’s conflicts of interest, its ethical breaches and its power.
Tomorrow is going to be an absolute nightmare here because Lulu wants to fight fireworks when she hears them. There have been a smattering of fireworks here in NE DC over the last few days and she barks at every boom she hears.
Last year, I took her camping to avoid the fireworks, but the weather this year is far more brutal for a bulldog (90° and potential rain), so we’re kinda stuck. I might just drive her away from the fireworks in my air conditioned car.
I went to the Orioles Pride night last week with some friends and got the O’s special hat for the night. As I like to do, I put the hat on Lulu for social media. She doesn’t care for it.
A Recommendation: Get Away From Twitter and Read Lyta Gold’s Piece About That Terrible Site
I’ve already eulogized my preferred brain-ruining platform, but Elon Musk and his leadership team made changes to the platform over the weekend that hammered the final nail into the coffin of Twitter. In limiting what users can see on the site, Twitter is now making that corner of the Internet – the so-called “town square” of free speech that Musk reveres – a pay-to-play situation. Lyta Gold has a terrific analysis of the end of Twitter that posted on Saturday.
Limiting views on a social media site feels like a death blow to the business model. Advertisers spend their dollars based on where they think consumer eyeballs are, and if you limit the number of eyeballs, then—goodbye advertisers! Of course, many advertisers have fled the site already (no legitimate business wants their products to appear next to a verified Nazi post) so Musk is probably still betting that he can turn subscriber dollars into a sustainable income stream. But why would a significant number of people fork over money to use a site that’s full of Nazis and limits how much time even its fiercest partisans can spend on it?
Later, Gold notes the same contradictions that Twitter gave us (a hell site and a place to gather, a place for underserved voices and a racist hellhole, etc.). There are also notes that BlueSky is like a rebound ex and the usual notions that we could all do well to go outside. Go read it.
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