Sotomayor and Stereotypes 101

The New York Times demonstrates how to report on observable evidence while giving credence to sexist, racist memes

By Kate Harding
Published May 29, 2009 2:30PM (EDT)

This week, the New York Times has provided a treasure trove of educational texts for budding journalists who can't afford some fancy J-school, and we here at Broadsheet are delighted to bring our vast journamalistic experience to bear on those texts for the benefit of eager young wannabe reporters. Yesterday, professor Amy Benfer demonstrated how to write a shocking trend piece in the complete absence of a shocking trend, and today, I'll be using this article about Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor to explain how you can further sexist and racist memes while maintaining the appearance of objectivity that's so important to a serious journalist.

1) Identify the sexist and/or racist stereotypes most applicable to your subject. In the case of Sotomayor, you'll want to focus on those attributed to any powerful woman (ball-busting, strident, domineering) or Latina (fiery like chili pepper!). Listen to people smearing your subject with criticism along those lines, and somehow convince yourself they should be taken seriously. Voilà! You've got the premise for an article! To wit, an article that the headline writer will call "Sotomayor's Sharp Tongue Raises Issues of Temperament," based on your excellent work.

2) Find people too nakedly bigoted or ignorant to understand that thoughtful folks will immediately recognize those stereotypes for what they are, and write down everything they say. This way, you never have to come right out and call your subject a bossy, hot-tempered Latin lady, but you can get the point across through the use of quotes. If you're lucky, your interviewees will even use words like "strident" on the record (thanks, New York defense lawyer Gerald Lefcourt!), but if they don't, you can always fall back on anonymous sources. The great advantage there is that you can use quotes from people who have no actual relationship to your subject, as long as they have some understanding of her profession. For example, "But to detractors, Judge Sotomayor's sharp-tongued and occasionally combative manner -- some lawyers have described her as 'difficult'  and 'nasty' -- raises questions about her judicial temperament and willingness to listen." Did you catch that "some lawyers" in there? Here, let me show you how it's done. Based on blog posts written by two genuine attorneys of my acquaintance, I have concluded that some lawyers believe Sotomayor is getting smeared with a bunch of sexist and racist bull pucky. Now you go find two lawyers with blogs who believe such criticism is accurate and unbiased! Ta da! Once you've amassed enough quotes, you can lead with a line like "Judge Sonia Sotomayor, President Obama's Supreme Court choice, has a blunt and even testy side..." in total confidence that you've got the evidence to back it up!

3) Make sure you find a bona fide woman of color to give you an unflattering quote along the same lines as all the others, which will prove that the criticism could not be sexist or racist. For instance, from Sheema Chaudury, who once appeared before Judge Sotomayor (and, I'm just guessing here, did not get the desired result): "I felt she could be very judgmental in the sense that she doesn't let you finish your argument before she jumps in and starts asking questions." (Domineering!) "She's brilliant and she's qualified, but I just feel that she can be very, how do you say, temperamental." (Fiery like chili pepper!) We all know women can't promote sexist stereotypes and people of color can't promote racist stereotypes, so one quote like that justifies taking the criticism seriously in the first place. You're golden!

4) For balance, also talk to people who have actually encountered your subject more than once and can't understand how she's gotten a reputation as a volatile ballbuster. For example, Judge Guido Calabresi, Sotomayor's former teacher and current colleague, who says "her behavior was identical" to that of the other 2nd Circuit justices, and even adds of the criticism, "Some lawyers just don't like to be questioned by a woman. It was sexist, plain and simple." Or H. Raymond Fasano, a Republican lawyer who's appeared before Sotomayor more than 20 times, who says, "When a judge asks a lot of questions, that means she's read the record, she knows the issues and she has concerns that she wants resolved. And that's the judge's job." Or fellow 2nd Circuit Judge Richard C. Wesley, who says his experience with Sotomayor is "totally antithetical to this perception that has gotten some traction that she is somehow confrontational." Bury these quotes from people who are familiar with your subject farther down in the article, after you've thoroughly established that some lawyers find her abrasive and hot-headed. Balance achieved!

It's important to note that it doesn't matter whether you agree with your subject's detractors or consciously harbor sexist or racist sentiments yourself. Journalistic objectivity means these things are irrelevant. What's important is that you treat disapproval rooted in age-old prejudices, coming from anonymous sources and/or those who have had little contact with your subject, every bit as seriously as comments on your subject from people who actually know her, regarding behavior they've actually observed. If you say to yourself, "Hey, 'sharp-tongued' and 'temperamental' sound a lot like 'strident' and 'hot-tempered,' which are terms that have been used to keep powerful women and Latinos in their place for eons and therefore should be considered skeptically if not dismissed entirely," you are shirking your duty to be, as one successful media outlet puts it, "fair and balanced." A real journalist must tell both sides of the story: the side based in observable evidence, and the side based in rumor and damaging stereotypes. Class dismissed. 

Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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