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It’s as fascinating as it is frustrating to watch the media spin a story to suit its preferred narrative. For this week’s example, look no further than the controversy surrounding oral arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas, the latest affirmative action case to reach the Supreme Court of the United States.
An MSNBC reporter named Irin Carmon — who also co-authored a laudatory biography of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg entitled The Notorious RBG — seized on a question raised by Justice Antonin Scalia during oral arguments. The question dealt with the assertion (raised by one of the briefs) that promising students from poor or minority schools would generally be better served by attending good-but-non-prestigious colleges than elite schools through affirmative action. In other words, these students face a more daunting adjustment than either they or the colleges realize, which unnecessarily dooms them to failure at prestigious schools when they would likely have prospered at other schools. There has been legitimate research into this idea that dates back over a decade.
That context was absent from a tweet Carmon sent out, and the response via social media has been sadly predictable:
From transcript, what Scalia said today on whether black people would be better served at “less advanced” schools pic.twitter.com/ikYGnjqM5p
— Irin Carmon (@irin) December 9, 2015
You know the drill by now. Scalia’s a racist. Scalia should be impeached. Scalia kicks puppies in his spare time.
As you also might have guessed, many left-leaning outlets then ran with the story. Within a few hours of Carmon’s tweet, journalists — either out of ignorance or disingenuousness — had pounced:
These are simply lies. But lies are acceptable when they further the correct worldview.
I have no idea whether the theory presented in the brief is entirely sound, and I don’t know enough about this particular case to know if it’s legally significant either way. What I do know is that it is wholly unremarkable — indeed, wholly proper — for a justice to ask about arguments presented in briefs at oral argument if he deems them potentially relevant. It’s also worth noting that a justice asking such a question doesn’t even necessarily agree with the premise.
But none of that matters. Here was a chance to (again) paint a brilliant legal mind as a backwards bigot by presenting a question he asked as a position he maintained, and doing so without the context of the research behind it.
If — or, more likely, when — this story filters through a television newscast, only a crumbling, unrecognizable husk of the truth will remain, further diminishing the general public’s understanding of how the Court should work and does work. For many in the media, the chance to stick it to one of the “bad people” and to portray one side as obviously racist is more important than silly, outdated concepts like nuanced discussion or basic fairness.
If there’s a silver lining: Scalia cares not a whit.