November 17, 2007

Please, No Team O'Connor

by PG

LawBeat's Mark Obbie responds to my surprise (that he would criticize Supreme Court beat journalists for ignoring stories about former Justice O'Connor's husband's Alzheimer's-related behavior) by pointing to Poynter's background on how the original Arizona TV news story came to be. Although I know a few people thought even that first report was inappropriate, I didn't. In the Poynter's article, the reporter says she had come up with the issue of "mistaken attachments" and was going to discuss it in reference to another residential facility altogether until that possibility fell through, and that it was by that accident that she ended up doing a story at John O'Connor's home. This only reinforces my distinction between a news story about an illness that happens to affect family members of a judge, which I thought unobjectionable, and a news story about the family life of said judge, which I thought crossed the line into gossip.

Neither story, however, is one that a Supreme Court reporter has any business telling. The first falls outside his subject area and the second falls outside what someone with pretensions to reporting about the law -- in contrast to reporting about legal actors as though they are celebrities -- would be reporting. To draw a comparison, reporting about Justice Ginsburg's health, particularly when she was falling asleep in oral arguments, is an unfortunate necessity for a Supreme Court reporter, who as one of the relatively few people able to watch oral arguments has an obligation to tell the rest of us what happened in them. Ginsburg is a current justice and her health is a matter of tremendous concern, particularly for those who wish her well not only for her own sake but also for instrumental political reasons, i.e. the fear that her place on the bench could be filled by another conservative.

What on earth does Justice O'Connor's husband's behavior due to his illness have to do with any of us? His illness was worthy of report as the reason she stepped down, and if its further degeneration led her to withdraw from public life, especially from filling in as a judge, his failing health would be of interest again. The specifics of his health -- whether he's taking Vitamin E, anti-depressives, Namenda; how he's dealing with personal hygiene or emotional attachments -- are of interest to people who care about Alzheimer's, not people who care about law. Perhaps it shows that I'm just a horrible uncaring person, but I don't particularly care more about Alzheimer's than any other disease not affecting my loved ones, and I don't understand why, as a law student, I'm now aware of a particular Alzheimer patient's behavior.

Obbie says, "I understand readers' squeamishness." It's not squeamishness, except inasmuch as a desire not to know details of retired judges' lives (I don't care whether Luttig has a really sweet office at Boeing, though I'd consider it a perfectly worthwhile subject for a magazine on workplace design) constitutes squeamishness. It is just a recognition that there are different spheres and pulling something that properly belongs in one sphere, such as a report on Alzheimer's, into another -- like a report on Justice O'Connor -- is a bad idea.

Obbie continues, "But I'll bet a lot of the commentators haven't even bothered to watch the Sanchez/Sass report, told in such a human, moving way. It's not exploitation. It's news because it's about life." I watched the original report twice (I had to watch again to back up my impression that it hadn't mentioned Justice O'Connor until literally halfway through). The original report is perfectly nice and non-exploitative. Again, that's why I pointed out the difference between it and the stories that followed in other venues like USA Today and Above the Law.

But (here I go again), it's also news because of the role that John O'Connor's illness played in changing history. Justice O'Connor's place in history, as the first woman and longtime swing vote, puts her a notch above the average Supreme Court justice. She forfeited that position to care for her husband. That doesn't mean that the family then loses all privacy, but I'm arguing, astonishing though it may be, that John O'Connor's attachment to another woman, and Sandra O'Connor's peace with that decision, is news even stripped of its obvious value in teaching us about Alzheimer's.
In his "how-not-to list for legal reporters," Obbie cautions journalists not to "[g]enuflect to the black robes," because "the public interest requires that we serve as a check on judicial power and misbehavior." Certainly, but is it a genuflection to distinguish between "the public interest" and "whatever the public might find interesting"? If "John O'Connor's attachment to another woman, and Sandra O'Connor's peace with that decision" is news because of Justice O'Connor's involvement, it's not Supreme Court news. It's not legal news. It's celebrity news, and for those of us who are bored with the media's fascination with the minutiae of celebrity life, treating Justice O'Connor like Team Aniston is annoying. I devoutly hope that Supreme Court reporters will ignore Obbie's call to do so.

(At a Q&A with Justice O'Connor Wednesday morning, every question was related to her work as a public person in Arizona's legislature and judiciary, on the Supreme Court or for the Iraq study group. Journalists have abstained from following an NYU student's lead in asking about one Supreme Court justice's marital life; I wish they would now follow Columbia students in not asking about another justice's marital life.)

UPDATE: The New York Times handles it OK, with a post on the health blog and a Week in Review article, both of which begin by noting the O'Connor family but then moving on to talk about the larger issues of Alzheimer's and elderly love, respectively.

November 17, 2007 05:38 PM | TrackBack
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