Eliminate television coverage from Supreme Court confirmation hearings

Associated Press/Jose Luis Magana/Susan Walsh/Andrew Harnik

It’s time to eliminate television coverage from Supreme Court confirmation hearings.

These Senate proceedings continue to devolve into an opportunity for politicians to play to the cameras, mollify their political bases, and create soundbites that will make effective campaign commercials for the next election cycle.

Judge Katanji Brown Jackson’s time under the Capitol Hill klieg lights this past week was just the latest example of how not to increase trust and respect for key American institutions. Hour after hour, Jackson faced heated skepticism about her dedication to punish child abusers and prevent toddlers from the pernicious influence of “woke” bedtime stories.

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said it best last Wednesday: “I think we should recognize that the jackassery we often see around here is partly because of people mugging for short-term camera opportunities.”

But made no mistake: Both parties are affected by this malady.

Performance has always been an important ingredient to political success. That’s fine when the performance has a purpose, when it’s used to argue for a national vision or specific program. But it’s mere hollow acting when it is just a piece of theatre directed toward selfish ends, like, say, reelection. In those cases, the camera is the enemy of real discussion and debate.

Two of the rougher Supreme Court nomination hearings in recent memory happened to take place during midterm election years: Jackson’s now in 2022, and Brett Kavanaugh’s in 2018. Rather than turning on key matters of judicial philosophy and temperament, both proceedings became proxy battles for issues that mattered most to base voters. In 2018, it was the #MeToo movement specifically — and, more generally, the anger many felt toward Donald Trump regarding some of his statements and views about women.

This year, Jackson was the stand-in for concerns galvanizing Republican base voters. Culture-war touchstones about parents’ rights in schools and rising crime in cities were front and center. Added in for good measure: a dash of hysteria about child pornography as a nod to the QAnon slice of the GOP electorate.

This turns Supreme Court hearings into little more than live rehearsals for primary and general election campaign talking points. And, to be honest, some senators may feel they have little choice.

Voters in a party’s base have exceptionally long memories. They are consistently looking for ways to re-fight old battles, gain the upper hand and declare a moral victory. In a Supreme Court confirmation hearing, that means striking back at the other side for what “they” did to Kavanaugh or Clarence Thomas or Merrick Garland. In this most recent case, the person sitting in the witness chair happens to be Katanji Brown Jackson — but that’s almost beside the point.

Court icons John Jay or John Marshall would fare little better, because this is about chalking up wins for the base while they are watching live and keeping score. If a senator doesn’t deliver the vengeance they expect here, retribution may well come in the voting booth.

And live television gives this hunger for revenge an extra wallop. For some, seeing a senator from your team spar with the other side’s high court nominee produces a thrill close to watching a live televised sporting event. There’s a tension and spark you don’t get from watching highlights later on the late news.

The cameras, then, provide little incentive to keep the proceedings at a higher level.

Republicans were at first determined to be “respectful,” given the historic nature of Jackson’s nomination. But all those lights and microphones were stark reminders of who was out there watching — and what they required.

Get rid of television. Yes, that means less “transparency” in the confirmation process — but it may also salvage what little dignity remains in one of the Senate’s most important constitutional duties.

Imagine what the hearings for Jackson and Kavanaugh would have been like absent TV coverage.

All the most pointed issues would still have been addressed, as they should have: crime, culture, education, sexual assault, women’s rights. But the heat would have been lower. The urge from certain senators to turn questions into soundbites, to create viral moments and craft clever campaign commercials — all of that would have been diminished.

No one would’ve expected the Lincoln-Douglas debates, true. But both proceedings would most likely have done less to lower the behavorial bar and more to elevate the Senate and the Supreme Court.

Confirmation hearings are trapped in a no-win cycle. Something forceful needs to be done to break the pattern. Let’s start with this: Turn off the TV cameras.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.

Tags American Media American politics American television Ben Sasse Brett Kavanaugh Clarence Thomas Donald Trump Ketanji Brown Jackson Ketanji Brown Jackson confirmation hearing Merrick Garland Supreme Court confirmation process Supreme Court of the United States Transparency United States federal courts US Senate

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