September 21, 2020

Hey everyone, Tom Jones here. I’m back after a week’s vacation. Thanks to the Poynter team for filling in while I was gone. Now on to today’s report.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death leaves an open seat on the Supreme Court. Now what?

Just when 2020 couldn’t get any more complicated, contentious and controversial, we learned Friday night that, sadly, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died. Because just when we thought the 2020 presidential election couldn’t get any more divisive or disruptive, we learned that the fight for Ginsburg’s open seat could impact the election more than any other issue.

More than the coronavirus, which continues to rage on. More than the economy, which continues to struggle. More than protests and discussions of race, which continue to happen all over the nation.

And certainly more than all the other issues we once thought would influence this election, such as immigration, climate change and Russian interference in the 2016 election.

For now, and maybe even up until Election Day, the news will be dominated by how and when Ginsburg’s seat will be filled.

Democrats insist Republicans play by the rules of 2016, when a court seat was left open nine months before the presidential election, so that the American voters could help pick the next president, who then nominated the next justice. Republicans are saying that the American people already have spoken, electing a Republican president and Senate and that the seat should be filled immediately.

As the country wrestles with this, NBC “Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd cut through all the double-talk and rhetoric on Sunday morning and got to the heart of the matter that Republicans will have to answer for over the coming days and weeks:

Isn’t it simply a bad look for Republicans to fast-track a justice before the election?

Todd grilled Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso with three right-to-the-point questions Sunday:

  • “Should viewers just not believe anything you’re saying today because whatever you’re saying today will change depending on the politics of the moment?”
  • “You have no regrets that Senate Republicans are going to look like hypocrites 44 days before the election, for just a complete flip-flop to the average American? I know you’re trying to come up with these caveats — nothing about it makes any sort of sense to the average person.”
  • “Four years ago, you were emphatic in various ways — you said it:  ‘I want to give the American people a voice in this.’ Why don’t you want to give the American people a voice this time?”

Todd pointed out all the times Barrasso himself said that Supreme Court justices should not be immediately replaced in the year leading up to a presidential election. On Sunday, Barrasso danced around Todd’s questions, insisting that the Republicans were not being hypocritical nor improper.

Todd’s line of questioning was superb. While most Republicans will continue to hold fast in their beliefs on how to fill the open seat, Todd asked the kind of questions that reporters need to keep pursuing as this story continues to boil over the coming weeks.

The purpose of these questions isn’t necessarily to get Republicans to change their minds —because that likely will not happen. But it’s to allow the American people to see for themselves how such questions are answered and then decide for themselves if they are OK with those answers.

Many would agree with Todd when he said, “nothing about it makes any sort of sense to the average person.”

Then again …

Many conservative Americans are fine with Trump nominating someone for the Supreme Court and having that nomination confirmed by the Senate before the election. And many liberals want to wait, not just because of what happened in 2016, but because their hope is Joe Biden will win the election and go with a more liberal pick. It’s politics all around.

Media critics don’t have to work too hard to find examples of conservative media (read: Fox News and its primetime pundits) who said one thing when there was an opening in 2016 and another now. The flip-flop is hardly surprising. Perhaps Fox News and others, including Republican politicians, should simply level with the American people by saying the Republicans should move forward with filling the seat because they can, instead of twisting themselves into pretzels trying to justify it with explanations that simply are not rooted in fact.

How should the media cover all this?

Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote, “The media — of all stripes — could keep from making it worse by maintaining a level tone, by not twisting the facts for the sake of partisanship, and by pushing back against misrepresentations. Based on the initial hours after Justice Ginsburg’s death, that’s going to be an unreasonably high bar.”

People gather at the Supreme Court  after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (Photo courtesy mpi34/MediaPunch /IPX)



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Random thoughts on the Supreme Court opening

  • Here’s an excellent primer from the Associated Press’ Mary Clare Jalonick and Lisa Mascaro explaining all that can happen next to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant by RBG’s death. It includes confirmation details, timelines, key senators to watch, what might happen right after the election and how the whole process works. Good stuff.
  • There’s also this smart piece by PolitiFact’s Louis Jacobson on how the Republicans can fill the seat, and my Poynter colleague Al Tompkins has resources for journalists wanting to understand what’s next.
  • If Trump wants to turn the conversation and the election away from the coronavirus, the economy and race, wouldn’t he be better off waiting to nominate Ginsburg’s replacement? Could turning the entire election into a fight for the Supreme Court actually be his best path to reelection? If a new justice is named before the election, don’t voters go back to all the issues there were before Ginsburg’s death, especially Trump’s response to coronavirus? Might some conservative voters who have turned away from Trump hold their noses while voting for him if it will guarantee a more conservative Supreme Court? I mention all this as we keep a close eye on media coverage in the coming weeks. It will be interesting to see if some media outlets and pundits place an emphasis on what might be more important to voters, particularly conservative ones: what the Supreme Court will look like in a year, or who will be residing in the White House.
  • Who are the leading candidates to replace Ginsburg if Trump gets his way either now or after the election? Here are thoughts from Morgan Chalfant, Jordain Carney, John Kruzel and Brett Samuels for The Hill. The New York Times’ Adam Liptak looks at the scrutiny the potential replacements could face. And The Washington Post’s Colby Itkowitz has a piece on Amy Coney Barrett, who many believe is at the top of Trump’s list.

A conflict of interest

NPR’s Nina Totenberg, left, and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stand onstage at the New York Academy of Medicine after doing a question and answer session in 2018 in New York. (AP Photo/Rebecca Gibian)

There were many glowing tributes to RBG over the weekend and few were as heartwarming, touching and personal as the one written by NPR’s Nina Totenberg. It truly was a beautiful piece that not only gave insight into Ginsburg, but chronicled, in detail, Totenberg’s five-decades long friendship with Ginsburg.

But it also revealed a close friendship that a journalist really should not have with someone they cover. Totenberg’s role at NPR includes coverage of the Supreme Court. And while it’s one thing to occasionally have coffee or lunch or drinks with someone you cover to further develop that source, the friendship between Totenberg and Ginsburg went far beyond that. It included dinners at Ginsburg’s place, nights out on the town and, even, Ginsburg performing Totenberg’s wedding ceremony. Totenberg wrote that she and Ginsburg were “close friends.”

Totenberg wrote, “I sometimes was asked how I could remain such good friends with RBG at the same time that I covered her as a reporter. The answer was really pretty simple. If you are lucky enough to be friends with someone like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, you both understand that you each have a job and that it has to be done professionally, and without favor.”

Actually, the answer is more simple than that: the friendship should not have happened. Or, if the friendship was that important, Totenberg should have recused herself from covering Ginsburg or the Supreme Court. In addition, NPR should have an issue with the relationship between Totenburg and Ginsburg, which was no secret.

It should be noted that Totenberg is not the first journalist to have a close and personal relationship with someone they “cover.” One of the most famous examples is the friendship between longtime Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and President John Kennedy. And, just like now, that was wrong, too.

Totenberg is considered a top-notch journalist. Perhaps her friendship with Ginsberg did not impact how she did her job or how she shaped her stories. But we can’t say it didn’t impact her journalism, either. And that’s the problem when you have even the appearance of a conflict of interest. We just don’t know. How can we be sure what stories Totenburg might have chosen to cover or ignore because of her relationship with Ginsburg? Not only does it bring into question Totenberg’s coverage, but it lends credence to all those who think the media is in cahoots with the people they cover — especially liberals.

There’s more than one story

The Supreme Court vacancy is and will continue to be a huge story. And it should be. What happens next could have a far greater and longer lasting impact on our country than who wins the 2020 election. So it should and needs to be covered as such.

But not at the expense of all other stories.

Therefore, it was good to see CBS’s “Face the Nation” continue its strong coverage of the coronavirus. When I spoke to moderator Margaret Brennan and executive producer Mary Hager back in May, they expressed their commitment to this story, and have kept that promise. Brennan’s segments with Dr. Scott Gottlieb have been superb. That includes Sunday, when Gottlieb, the former FDA commissioner and now CBS contributor, said we will have “at least one more cycle with this virus heading into the fall and winter.”

Gottlieb told Brennan, “If you look at what’s happening around the country right now, there’s an unmistakable spike in new infections. And you’re also seeing declines in hospitalizations that we were achieving starting to level off. I would expect them to start going up again as well. There’s about 15 states with a positivity rate of 10% or higher, which is deeply concerning.”

As far as a vaccine, Gottlieb said he doesn’t see one for the general population until at least the end of the second quarter of 2021 and maybe even later than that.

“The reality is that as we come out of the winter and head into the spring, hopefully this virus will start to dissipate in the summer,” Gottlieb said. “So what you really want is a vaccine available for mass inoculation before you head into the fall of 2021. So hopefully in a good scenario, whether you have the vaccine available in June or you have it available in August, isn’t going to make that much of a difference because the virus won’t be transferring as readily by then.”

This is solid Sunday morning news programming. Brennan asks the right questions and Gottlieb gives easy-to-digest information that audiences are looking for.

Meanwhile, as far as the short term, check out New York Times editorial writer Jeneen Interlandi’s “What the Fall and Winter of the Pandemic Will Look Like.”

Disgusting comment of the weekend

President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally Sept. 19 at the Fayetteville Regional Airport in Fayetteville, North Carolina. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

Sadly, Trump’s derogatory comments about the media — fake news, enemy of the people, etc. — have become so commonplace that they are hardly newsworthy anymore. Not that that’s OK. Trump’s attacks on the media should never be shrugged off.

He was at it again during a rally over the weekend, talking about an incident that happened back in May when MSNBC reporter Ali Velshi was hit by a rubber bullet shot by police during protests in Minneapolis following the killing of George Floyd.

“I remember this guy Velshi,” Trump said. “He got hit in the knee with a canister of tear gas and he went down. He was down. ‘My knee, my knee.’ Nobody cared, these guys didn’t care, they moved him aside. And they just walked right through. It was the most beautiful thing. No, because after we take all that crap for weeks and weeks, and you finally see men get up there and go right through them, wasn’t it really a beautiful sight? It’s called law and order.”

Actually, what it’s called is an unprovoked attack on a journalist, which was mocked by the president and applauded by his supporters. It was another unsurprising, yet disturbing comment about the press by the president.

Inserting problems

An insert in the el Nuevo Herald, the Miami Herald’s Spanish-language newspaper sister, regularly included opinion pieces that included obscenities and racist remarks, according to a report by the Miami Herald’s Andres Viglucci and Nora Gamez Torres.

Roberto Luque Escalona wrote pieces for something called LIBRE, which was inserted into the Friday editions of el Nuevo Herald until Herald leaders cut ties with it last week. According to the Herald story, it was “unaware the company was distributing it as an advertising supplement since January, and the company promised an investigation into how they overlooked it.”

Here’s what the Herald wrote:

“Though still incomplete, the investigation has found ‘significant lapses’ in the handling of the supplement, according to a statement released on Saturday by McClatchy, the Herald’s parent company. There was no ‘formal content review’ of LIBRE in the advertising department and no one in the newsroom was alerted to it, the McClatchy statement said.”

Example of the offensive things Luque Escalona wrote included comparing Michelle Obama to a “black monster” from Dante’s Inferno, calling Islam “filth,” Native Americans “primitive,” Africa the “ass of the world” and George Floyd a “common criminal.” He wrote that Black Lives Matter protestors should summarily be put to death, and that he didn’t like Jewish people.

According to the Herald story, top executives at the news organization only learned about all this when a reporter saw a reader complain on social media about an anti-Semitic comment in a Luque Escalona column.

In a lengthy Twitter thread, Kristin Roberts, vice president of news for McClatchy, said in part, “I am sorry. I am sick with disappointment and sadness and anger that we allowed such racist, bigoted words and misinformation to be delivered to our subscribers. I hope everyone who is rightly concerned about this will read the audit of the content.”

Hot type

An explosive report by a team of BuzzFeed News journalists that show how criminals used the world’s biggest banks to finance their crimes and how the government doesn’t stop it.

A Fox-affiliated TV station in Nashville had to apologize for and remove a story that misled viewers about a coronavirus coverup that never happened. But by that point, Fox News, Beitbart, The Daily Wire and other conservative outlets already were off and running with the story. CNN’s Oliver Darcy has the details.

The New York Times looks back at RBG through photos of her rise to the Supreme Court.

More resources for journalists:

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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  • Please note, too, that the Democrats have also changed their stance on appointing a Supreme Court Justice before an election.