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Reader sees partisanship in 'partisan lines in the sand' angle

July 31, 2009 |  1:20 pm

"Sotomayor Vote Sets a Partisan Tone," read the headline over a news report published Tuesday detailing how the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 13-6 to send Judge Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the full Senate.

Citing the headline and other language in the article as examples of The Times' "consistent shading of the news," reader Alan Frank of Glendale opened up an e-mail exchange with National Editor Roger Smith.

The article started with this line: "Republicans' unflinching opposition Tuesday to Judge Sonia Sotomayor drew a partisan line in the sand, signaling that any future Obama nominees to the Supreme Court are unlikely to win significant GOP support even if they have solid legal credentials and moderate records."

The story went on to give the stats: "By a 13-6 vote, the Democrats and a lone Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee sent her nomination to the full Senate, where she is expected to easily win confirmation next week because of the significant Democratic majority."

"Just give us the facts," say numerous e-mails from readers who say they see bias. Smith and Frank's back-and-forth is an example of how editors struggle to frame a breaking news story in a broader, analytical context, and how some readers see opinion in the resulting coverage.

Wrote Frank: "I continue to be intrigued regarding the tone of the headlines and the definite word nuances that appear within the articles. In today's front page report on the Judge Sotomayor confirmation proceeding, the references to 'partisan lines in the sand' and 'Republicans' unflinching opposition' to her made me wonder how you described the unanimous vote against Judge Alito a few years ago. I sure wish I remembered whether the same kinds of words were used to describe the proceedings. Could it be that the Republicans who voted against her just did not agree with some of her decisions? Why not just report the facts on the front page and leave the paper's biases to the opinion section?" 

In responding, Smith acknowledged the need to balance news with fresh but accurate context:

"The tone of the article was the result of some serious haggling among the editors and writers. We knew that the news of the day, the vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee, had been on the airwaves and in the Internet for many hours. We asked ourselves what can we bring to the breakfast table that puts this in a little perspective?
 
"We try hard not to let 'perspective' slip into opinion, although I know reasonable people disagree on this point. In this case we felt that the nature of the vote spoke to the way partisanship had gripped the nomination process (fourth paragraph). In support of that point, we noted how the Democrats had voted unanimously to oppose Alito three years ago despite his long and solid record (fifth paragraph).

"All that said we hope to keep the news pages for news, and I hope you keep reading, and writing."

The reader wrote to say he appreciated the response, and went on:  "I like the idea of 'what else can be brought to the breakfast table,' but I still would like the added value to be the facts ... please let me fill in the blanks. You appropriately noted the Democrats voted against Alito ... those were the facts. You stuck to the facts without any adjectives. [But] you added a lot of flair to the Republicans' vote against Sotomayor as you included words like 'unflinching' and 'partisanship,' clearly setting a different tone than your factual description of the Alito vote.

"I appreciate how difficult your job is, but just know that your loyal subscribers care about what is being written and know that some of us really read the paper. Stick to the facts, the paper will be better off for it!"

And what of the comparison to coverage for Samuel A. Alito Jr. during his confirmation proceedings?

The article at the same point in the proceedings for Alito was published Jan. 25, 2006. The headline and deck read: "Senate Panel Backs Alito on Party-Line Vote: The full chamber will begin debate on the nominee today and its narrow approval could come this week. He could tilt court to right." The first two paragraphs: "The Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday endorsed the Supreme Court nomination of Samuel A. Alito Jr. in a vote that split along party lines and highlighted disputes over his conservative judicial record.

"The full Senate will begin its debate on Alito today and a vote on his selection by President Bush to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor could come by the end of the week. Alito is expected to narrowly win confirmation and, as a justice, tilt the court to the right."

In essence, Smith says, the different coverage reflected, simply, the different circumstances. Wrote Smith: "I did take a quick look at the Senate Judiciary vote story on Alito, and we didn’t describe the Democrats as unflinching, etc. The notion of the partisan divide was a little fresh then. We thought the Sotomayor vote more or less cemented it, hence the stronger analytical tone. But the point the reader makes is debated in the newsroom story by story every day. We want to bring value added, but are we getting ahead of the facts? Can we say this? I really like hearing from people like Mr. Frank because it informs our process and reminds us of our duties."   

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