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Wednesday, June 08, 2022

"I Can Say Without Hyperbole That This is a Million Times Worse Than All of Them Put Together"

The headline to the NPR story, delivered this morning, so I gather, by Nina Totenberg, is "After leak, Supreme Court seethes with resentment and fear behind the scenes." Maybe so. That is, after all, a fair description of the average workplace. 

But I must say the evidence for it in the story itself is remarkably weak. What does it consist of? Totenberg notes a speech by Justice Thomas a few weeks ago, and describes it as "seem[ing] to say he no longer trusts his colleagues." Thomas's speech praised the sense of trust that prevailed when the Court, under Chief Justice Rehnquist, had 11 years without personnel changes. Thomas did say, "This is not the Court of that era," but Totenberg does not quote this line. She does, however, first say that Thomas "[s]pecifically...implied that he doesn't trust Chief Justice John Roberts," and then write, "The root of the current antipathy is not definitely known," a sentence that feints at epistemic humility along one front while drawing from her inferences, so far as I can tell, and then asserting as settled fact that there is antipathy between the two. 

She goes on to talk in general terms about government leak investigations and directly hypothetical terms about how they might go at the Court, adding the unsourced comment that "indications are that some law clerks are lawyering up," following later with a more relevant, albeit unsourced and Brockmanesque, statement that "the terrified law clerks have been calling law firms, wondering whether they need legal representation." 

That quote is one of three things that come the closest to direct evidence, although I have no idea what her source is for the experience of terror as opposed to the concrete action of calling law firms (also unsourced). The second is this sentence toward the beginning of the piece: "The atmosphere behind the scenes is so ugly that, as one source put it, 'the place sounds like it's imploding.'" And the piece's kicker involves this: "'I don't know how on earth the court is going to finish up its work this term,' said a source close to the justices." That amounts to two quotes, neither of them especially direct and the second one not especially conclusive. Note that "a source close to the justices" and "one source" may be the same person. And since the second quote is followed by Totenberg writing in her own words but attributing the point to the same source about the clerks being "terrified," there may be as few as two sources, and possibly one, for the whole shebang, other than those portions of the article that draw on perceived implications and inferences. My trust in the accuracy of conclusions about highly specific facts in the world drawn from implications and inferences is somewhat diminished by, inter alia, 30 years of argument on the Internet.  

All of it may be true. All of it and worse may be true. It may be time, to quote another fine Kent Brockman line, for Court-watchers to crack each other's heads open and feast on the goo inside. But the headline hardly matches the evidence. Of course journalists don't write their own headlines. But the piece itself is paper-thin. Not only did the reporting not justify the headline; the reporting did not justify running the report. Perhaps Totenberg knows all this and more from many places. But that's quite irrelevant. "Trust me; I'm so-and-so" is not authority, although people in our line of work do seem ready to be overawed by famous people. Not is it journalism. Getting the goods, and reporting only what you can nail down and only so far as you can do so and without hyperbole, is journalism.  

Posted by Paul Horwitz on June 8, 2022 at 03:54 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink

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