August 11, 2010

A Tale of Two Justices

Kagan (2010) Sotomayor (2009)
Nomination 13 24
Post Nomination 0.2 5
Hearing 11 22
Confirmation 2 5

10th – Where Elena Kagan’s confirmation ranks among stories the week of August 2-8

August 5, Elena Kagan was confirmed as the 112th justice and fourth woman on the United States Supreme Court by a Senate vote of 63-37. Media coverage of her confirmation, which had never really been in doubt, filled 3% of the newshole studied. That made it the tenth-biggest story the week of August 2-8.

And throughout a confirmation process that lasted nearly three months, Kagan’s path to the High Court proved to be of considerably less interest to the media than that of her predecessor, Sonia Sotomayor.

Let’s start at the beginning. The week that Obama nominated Kagan, that news accounted for 13% of the coverage studied by PEJ; it was the second-biggest story that week (May 10-16, 2010). But news of Sotomayor’s nomination accounted for almost twice as much coverage (24%) and was the top story the week of May 25-31, 2009.

The same pattern held in the week following their nominations. Kagan’s nomination accounted for less than 1% of the newshole studied (May 17-23, 2010). Sotomayor was more than quintuple that, filling 5% of the newshole from June 1-7, 2009.

In an important moment for Kagan’s nomination, her confirmation hearings accounted for 11% of the newshole from June 28-July 4 and represented the third-biggest story that week. But Sotomayor’s hearings, the week of July 13-19 2009, were the No. 1 story at 22% of the newshole.

And while Kagan’s vote in the full Senate was closer, it accounted for 3% of the coverage last week while Sotomayor’s confirmation registered at 5% from August 3-9, 2009. (Sotomayor was confirmed by a vote of 68-31).

Several factors may help explain the differences in media attention. Sotomayor’s nomination was viewed as more historic in that she was the first Hispanic justice on the Court. And ethnic and gender identity were also part of a controversy when some critics accused her of racism in the light of her 2001 statement that she hoped a “wise Latina woman” would reach better conclusions than a “white male.” That fueled extensive coverage on the cable news and talk radio shows that are often driven by ideological hosts. Questions over Kagan’s positions gays in the military and the fact that she had not previously served as a judge did not rise to the same level.

Another reason for the difference might be that much of Kagan’s confirmation process occurred at the same time when another story, the Gulf oil spill, was commanding the press’ attention. A year earlier, when Sotomayor ascended to the bench, there was no such story dominating media resources and coverage.