Media October 2009

The Story Behind the Story

With journalists being laid off in droves, ideologues have stepped forward to provide the “reporting” that feeds the 24-hour news cycle. The collapse of journalism means that the quest for information has been superseded by the quest for ammunition. A case-study of our post-journalistic age.

Morgen Richmond, for one—the man who actually found the snippets used to attack Sotomayor. He is a partner in a computer-consulting business in Orange County, California, a father of two, and a native of Canada, who defines himself, in part, as a political conservative. He spends some of his time most nights in a second-floor bedroom/office in his home, after his children and wife have gone to bed, cruising the Internet looking for ideas and information for his blogging. “It’s more of a hobby than anything else,” he says. His primary outlet is a Web site called VerumSerum.com, which was co-founded by his friend John Sexton. Sexton is a Christian conservative who was working at the time for an organization called Reasons to Believe, which strives, in part, to reconcile scientific discovery and theory with the apparent whoppers told in the Bible. Sexton is, like Richmond, a young father, living in Huntington Beach. He is working toward a master’s degree at Biola University (formerly the Bible Institute of Los Angeles), and is a man of opinion. He says that even as a youth, long before the Internet, he would corner his friends and make them listen to his most recent essay. For both Sexton and Richmond, Verum Serum is a labor of love, a chance for them to flex their desire to report and comment, to add their two cents to the national debate. Both see themselves as somewhat unheralded conservative thinkers in a world captive to misguided liberalism and prey to an overwhelmingly leftist mainstream media, or MSM, composed of journalists who, like myself, write for print publications or work for big broadcast networks and are actually paid for their work.

Richmond started researching Sotomayor after ABC News Washington correspondent George Stephanopoulos named her as the likely pick back on March 13. The work involved was far less than I’d imagined, in part because the Internet is such an amazing research tool, but mostly because Richmond’s goal was substantially easier to achieve than a journalist’s. For a newspaper reporter, the goal in researching any profile is to arrive at a deeper understanding of the subject. My own motivation, when I did it, was to present not just a smart and original picture of the person, but a fair picture. In the quaint protocols of my ancient newsroom career, the editors I worked for would have accepted nothing less; if they felt a story needed more detail or balance, they’d brusquely hand it back and demand more effort. Richmond’s purpose was fundamentally different. He figured, rightly, that anyone Obama picked who had not publicly burned an American flag would likely be confirmed, and that she would be cheered all the way down this lubricated chute by the Obama-loving MSM. To his credit, Richmond is not what we in the old days called a “thumbsucker,” a lazy columnist who rarely stirs from behind his desk, who for material just reacts to the items that cross it. (This defines the vast majority of bloggers.) Richmond is actually determined to add something new to the debate.

“The goal is to develop original stories that attract attention,” he told me. “I was consciously looking for something that would resonate.”

But not just anything resonant. Richmond’s overarching purpose was to damage Sotomayor, or at least to raise questions about her that would trouble his readers, who are mostly other conservative bloggers. On most days, he says, his stuff on Verum Serum is read by only 20 to 30 people. If any of them like what they see, they link to it or post the video on their own, larger Web sites.

Richmond began his reporting by looking at university Web sites. He had learned that many harbor little-seen recordings and transcripts of speeches made by public figures, since schools regularly sponsor lectures and panel discussions with prominent citizens, such as federal judges. Many of the events are informal and unscripted, and can afford glimpses of public figures talking unguardedly about their ideas, their life, and their convictions. Many are recorded and archived. Using Google, Richmond quickly found a list of such appearances by Sotomayor, and the first one he clicked on was the video of the 2005 panel discussion at Duke University Law School. Sotomayor and two other judges, along with two Duke faculty members, sat behind a table before a classroom filled with students interested in applying for judicial clerkships. The video is 51 minutes long and is far from riveting. About 40 minutes into it, Richmond says, he was only half listening, multitasking on his home computer, when laughter from the sound track caught his ear. He rolled back the video and heard Sotomayor utter the line about making policy, and then jokingly disavow the expression.

“What I found most offensive about it was the laughter,” he says. “What was the joke? … Here was a sitting appellate judge in a room full of law students, treating the idea that she was making policy or law from the bench as laughable.” He recognized it as a telling in-joke that his readers would not find funny.

Richmond posted the video snippet on YouTube on May 2, and then put it up with a short commentary on Verum Serum the following day, questioning whether Sotomayor deserved to be considered moderate or bipartisan, as she had been characterized. “I’m not so sure this is going to fly,” he wrote, and then invited readers to view the video. He concluded with sarcasm: “So she’s a judicial activist … I’m sure she is a moderate one though! Unbelievable. With a comment like this I only hope that conservatives have the last laugh if she gets the nomination.”

A number of larger conservative Web sites, notably Volokh.com (the Volokh Conspiracy, published by UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh) and HotAir.com (published by conservative commentator Michelle Malkin), picked up the video, and on May 4 it was aired on television for the first time, by Sean Hannity.

On Malkin’s Web site, Richmond had come across a short, critical reference to a speech Sotomayor had given at Berkeley Law School, in which, according to Malkin, the prospective Supreme Court nominee said “she believes it is appropriate for a judge to consider their ‘experiences as women and people of color’ in their decision making, which she believes should ‘affect our decisions.’”

Malkin told me that her “conservative source” for the tidbit was privileged. She used the item without checking out the actual speech, which is what Richmond set out to find. He had some trouble because Malkin had placed the speech in 2002 instead of 2001, but he found it—the Honorable Mario G. Olmos Law & Cultural Diversity Memorial Lecture—in the Berkeley Law School’s La Raza Law Journal, bought it, and on May 5 posted the first detailed account of it on his blog. He ran large excerpts from it, and highlighted in bold the now infamous lines: “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”

Richmond then commented:

To be fair, I do want to note that the statement she made… is outrageous enough that it may have in fact been a joke. Although since it’s published “as-is” in a law journal I’m not sure she is entitled to the benefit of the doubt on this. The text certainly does not indicate that it was said in jest. I have only a lay-person’s understanding of law and judicial history, but I suspect the judicial philosophy implied by these statements is probably pretty typical amongst liberal judges. Personally, I wish it seemed that she was actually really trying to meet the judicial ideal of impartiality, and her comments about making a difference are a concern as this does not seem to be an appropriate focus for a member of the judiciary. I look forward to hopefully seeing some additional dissection and analysis of these statements by others in the conservative legal community.

The crucial piece of Richmond’s post, Sotomayor’s “wise Latina woman” comment, was then picked up again by other sites, and was soon being packaged with the Duke video as Exhibits A and B in the case against Sonia Sotomayor. Richmond told me that he was shocked by the immediate, widespread attention given to his work, and a little startled by the levels of outrage it provoked. “I found her comments more annoying than outrageous, to be honest,” he said.

Presented by

Mark Bowden, an Atlantic national correspondent, was for 25 years a reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer. More

Mark BowdenMark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and a best-selling author. His book Black Hawk Down, a finalist for the National Book Award, was the basis of the film of the same name. His book Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club's 2001 Cornelius Ryan Award as the book of the year. Among his other books are Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which was listed by Newsweek as one of "The 50 Books for Our Times." His most recent books are The Best Game Ever, the story of the 1958 NFL championship game, and Worm, which tells the story of the Conficker computer worm, based on the article "The Enemy Within," published in this magazine.

Mark has received The Abraham Lincoln Literary Award and the International Thriller Writers' True Thriller Award for lifetime achievement, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards in 2005. He is a 1973 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, where he also taught from 2001-2010. A reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 30 years, Bowden is now an adjunct professor at The University of Delaware and lives in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He is married with five children and two granddaughters.

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