Is the media really ignoring Sessions' past?

Media Matters claims papers aren't keeping their readers informed, but their own research seems to contradict them

Published July 15, 2009 11:01PM (EDT)

Media Matters, a liberal press watchdog, believes major newspapers are "disappear[ing]" the history of Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. The senator is currently leading his fellow Republicans on the Judiciary Committee during the Sotomayor confirmation hearings, but a little more than 20 years ago, the same committee rejected his nomination to become a district court judge over allegations that he had a history of racist statements.

The problem? In an e-mail announcing the group's report, its press secretary, Jessica Levin, included some of her own notes, which cast doubt on its accuracy. From the e-mail:

I wanted to make sure you had seen Media Matters’ latest research on the media ignoring allegations that surfaced during Sen. Jeff Sessions’ 1986 nomination to the U.S. district court. As reported by the Associated Press, Sessions’ "nomination originally drew fire from civil rights groups because of his [1985] prosecution ... of three west Alabama civil rights activists on vote fraud charges. The three were acquitted by a federal court jury, prompting civil rights leaders to charge that the prosecution was an attempt to intimidate black voters." Doesn’t the fact that we quote the AP undermine the idea that the media is ignoring the story? Could we say, “research on much of the media ignoring…”

(Emphasis mine.)

After Salon obtained the e-mail, and contacted Levin for comment, the group sent out a revised version without her editorial comments. But the question of whether the media's really "disappear[ed]" Sessions' history remains. So does, unfortunately, a common practice among media critics of complaining that the press is ignoring a story -- and then quoting mainstream coverage of that story in order to prove their point.

In this case, Media Matters focused on five newspapers -- the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today and the Wall Street Journal -- and noted that in their July 14 coverage of Sessions' opening statement at the Sotomayor hearings, none mentioned his past.

That's true -- but it's not true that those papers have ignored Sessions' own history in front of the committee, or failed to inform their readers about it. In fact, according to a search of Lexis-Nexis, four out of the five had previously covered the issue in some detail; two of those published profiles of him that focused on the episode. The only paper not to mention it, according to a search of its Web site, was the Journal.

Karl Frisch, a senior fellow with Media Matters, says that doesn't matter. To him, the fact that the papers have written about Sessions' background before makes it all the more important to note it again. "The item does make clear that some of these very same newspapers have reported on the issue in the past," Frisch told Salon. "But in coverage of the hearing and of Sessions' focus on race, the media should include Sessions' background .... I think readers have a right to know the context under which these questions are being asked, and the history of the person raising hte questions."

Media Matters' report does note the papers' previous coverage, as Frisch said -- but the note is stuck at the bottom of the introduction, and says only, "some of these newspapers have reported on those allegations recently."

It's true, however, that prior coverage doesn't get papers off the hook. Sometimes, it's easy for reporters and editors to forget that they deal with this stuff day in and day out and know all sorts of background that their readers may have forgotten a month after it ran in the paper. Too often, they then end up leaving that information out.

But it's easy to criticize, and important to remember that everyone has different ways of viewing a story and deciding what's relevant information -- Media Matters, which is coming from a liberal perspective, wants a certain item highlighted, while a conservative watchdog may see bias because of the lack of emphasis on something else. In this case, the story was the hearings, and the reporters and their employers deserve some slack -- they had plenty they had to cover in their first day stories on the Sotomayor hearings, and not much room to do it in.

As for the e-mail, Frisch told Salon, "I think we're hardly the first to send out an unfinished email out to reporters. It's embarrassing, but it illustrates how seriously we take our job as a watchdog, that we want to make sure our criticism is fair, honest and accurate."

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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