Why the Media Missed the Mark on Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court Hearings

This past week, Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch endured 20 hours of hearings to prove that he is worthy of a prestigious seat on the nation’s highest court.

Gorsuch was questioned by 20 senators—11 Republicans and 9 Democrats—led by Judiciary Committee chairman Senator Chuck Grassley. Each senator was allotted 20 to 30 minutes at a time to question the judge based on his past judicial record and his ability to serve as a Supreme Court justice.

The lengthy hearing is an important process in the decision to fill a lifetime position and was therefore covered by a host of media outlets. Despite this, most ignored the majority of the important content in favor of catchy headlines.

The hearings started on Monday, during which Gorsuch gave a 16-minute opening statement. However, the hearing was largely overshadowed by the media’s coverage of another hearing—the House Intelligence Committee hearing on whether Russia had an influence on President Trump’s presidential campaign. FBI Director James Comey testified in front of the committee, which earned live coverage from mainstream media outlets. Because of this, the introductory statements by the confirmation committee and Gorsuch’s opening statement were missed.

Gorsuch’s hearing finally claimed the spotlight on Tuesday when questioning began. The hearing was broadcast live for its duration on outlets including C-SPAN, NPR, PBS and was live streamed online by many other major outlets. Many of the mainstream outlets that did not cover the hearings live relied on catchy headlines to convey what was happening on Capitol Hill, such as “Gorsuch hearings show him as careful, folksy, testy, at times” and “Partisan tensions flare in final stretch of Gorsuch hearings.”

Gorsuch’s confirmation process has been very similar to those nominated before him. Under President Obama, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan were confirmed within a few weeks of their three-day-long committee hearings. Under President George W. Bush, Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito went through the same confirmation process. The confirmation process has always been the same, but the length of the hearings has varied with each justice.

In recent years, the confirmation process has become much lengthier, although it has never taken a justice more than 125 days to be confirmed after their nominations. In his hearings, Gorsuch referenced Justice Byron White’s confirmation hearing, which lasted one day. Byron White was approved within eight days of President Kennedy’s appointment. Despite the longer hearings, they are still certainly worthwhile considering the lifetime tenure that comes with confirmation.

Gorsuch is a controversial choice, especially considering the Merrick Garland debacle. Still, he did a decent job of proving that he could be an objective justice. The media coverage of the hearings planned to cover this Republican-Democrat tension; but instead, it seemed many mainstream media outlets opted for the most interesting, fun and non-political quotes.

Below are some of the conversations from the SCOTUS hearings that the media heavily covered:

  • “When Byron White sat here, it was 90 minutes,” Gorsuch said, seeming agitated that his hearing—and recent hearings—are much longer than they used to be.
  • “What is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything?” Senator Ted Cruz asked Gorsuch. “Forty-two,” he replied, referencing “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
  • “Ours is a judiciary of honest black polyester,” said Gorsuch in reference to the modest role a Supreme Court Justice plays in the American democracy.
  • On behalf of his son, Senator Jeff Flake asked Gorsuch, “Would you rather fight 100 duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck?” the question that went viral on Reddit AMAs.

These moments showcased the few times when both the senators on the committee and Gorsuch tried to ease the tension and break up the heavy content while they all sat in the same seats for hours on end. They do not, however, necessarily capture how Gorsuch would serve as a justice or how he has practiced law. They may, at best, capture his humanity and sense of humor (or lack thereof), but do not do the several hours of testimony justice.

Still, the media did not completely ignore the substantial content that was covered in the hearings, although these topics were not given as much attention. These were topics that were pushed by senators on the Judicial Committee based on Gorsuch’s judicial record.

A commonly referenced case throughout the hearings, nicknamed the ‘Frozen Trucker’ case, was used to debate Gorsuch’s decision to rule against a trucker who claimed he was wrongfully fired for unhitching his truck from its trailer in subzero temperatures. Gorsuch was the only judge on the 10th Circuit to issue a dissent in this case. The committee questioned him in order to challenge whether he favors corporations over employee welfare.

Throughout the hearings Garland was repeatedly brought up by the Democratic senators on the committee. Many Democrats are upset that Garland never received a hearing due to a block by Republican lawmakers, and believe that Gorsuch should not be allowed to fill the seat.

As the nominee of President Trump, the committee was curious as to whether Gorsuch would favor the president and his party in making case decisions. Gorsuch stated, “I have no difficulty ruling against or for any party.” Gorsuch repeatedly tried to express his objectivity in how he would approach ruling on Supreme Court cases, including ruling against President Trump.

Senator Dianne Feinstein pressed Gorsuch on his stance on torture, which is still unclear. In 2005, Gorsuch was a senior official in the Justice Department and may have had an influence in the signing statement issued by President Bush to bypass the Detainee Treatment Act, which barred torture.

Another controversy during the hearings surrounded accusations by a former law student that Gorsuch allegedly believes that women manipulate maternity leave benefits when joining new companies. Gorsuch denied this accusation, and several of his former law clerks backed him up.

A recently debated issue surrounding the Supreme Court is whether there should be cameras allowed in the court. There is currently limited access to the court while cases are being deliberated. Many argue that cameras should be allowed so the public can witness the cases that impact the entire country. Gorsuch claimed he had not thought about the issue, but is keeping an “open minded” stance on having cameras in the Supreme Court.

It is important to go over Gorsuch’s past judicial record as well as how he may rule on cases going forward. Gorsuch, if approved to be a justice, will be serving for life. The young judge is only 49, so he would have a significant impact on the ruling for many cases to come. However, the media seems to be giving comparable attention to trivial matters and  important ones detailing how Gorsuch may contribute to the Supreme Court.

The media’s focus on these trivial headlines are an attempt to make an extremely lengthy and boring process a story that will sell on television or in print. By picking the most controversial or entertaining headlines, the media ends up distracting from the point of this entire process. If the audience is only seeing these stories rather than getting an in-depth analysis of what the process is and what it all means, the public could be getting a skewed view of Gorsuch and the Supreme Court as an institution.

As this confirmation continues to progress, it will be increasingly important for the media to showcase the process so that the public understands what will make or break the appointment of Gorsuch to an extremely important position. Hopefully the headlines will stay away from pop culture references and focus more on the content being debated for a position that is supposed to be objective.

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