Antonin Scalia is a character.
That much is clear from the highly engaging interview with the Supreme Court justice in New York this week. Some of his critics find his personality singularly grating. Personally, I can't help but find the man likable, and I came away from the interview thinking how fun it would be to debate him over a meal (perhaps focusing on his assumptions about executive power and the way they have, in my view, caused him and his colleagues to fail in one of their duties). That issue aside, one of his answers bothered me even as I liked others a lot.
Here's the exchange that occurred when Scalia was asked about his reading habits:
What’s your media diet? Where do you get your news?
Well, we get newspapers in the morning.
“We” meaning the justices?
No! Maureen and I.
Oh, you and your wife …
I usually skim them. We just get The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times. We used to get the Washington Post, but it just … went too far for me. I couldn’t handle it anymore.
What tipped you over the edge?
It was the treatment of almost any conservative issue. It was slanted and often nasty. And, you know, why should I get upset every morning? I don’t think I’m the only one. I think they lost subscriptions partly because they became so shrilly, shrilly liberal.
So no New York Times, either?
No New York Times, no Post.
And do you look at anything online?
I get most of my news, probably, driving back and forth to work, on the radio.
Sometimes NPR. But not usually.
Talk guys, usually.
Do you have a favorite?
You know who my favorite is? My good friend Bill Bennett. He’s off the air by the time I’m driving in, but I listen to him sometimes when I’m shaving. He has a wonderful talk show. It’s very thoughtful. He has good callers. I think they keep off stupid people.
This attitude drives me nuts.
The Wall Street Journal is a great newspaper. If I subscribed to that and one other newspaper, The Washington Times wouldn't be my choice, but to each his own. What surprised me was that Scalia canceled the Washington Post because it upset him every morning. In my experience, people trained as attorneys are far more likely than the average American to read and engage with intellectual content without getting emotionally upset by it. That's part of the job.
It's a useful trait too.
All kinds of assumptions with which I disagree are breezily embedded into The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, talk radio, and every other mass-media outlet. Does it upset me, emotionally? Extremely rarely, and when that happens, I feel foolish. If a news source upsets you every day, hey, life's too short to subscribe, but somehow I imagined Scalia wouldn't be so exquisitely sensitive, in part because getting upset so easily over ideology has a significant downside.
Whatever one thinks of the Washington Post and its place on the ideological spectrum—I guarantee that I object to its establishment mentality and neoconservative tendencies every bit as much as Scalia objects to its liberalism—the newspaper employs many tremendous talents and publishes lots of great stuff. As a consequence of being unable to control his emotional reaction to the Post's political biases, Scalia has missed reading Barton Gellman's reporting on the NSA, any number of Gene Weingarten masterpieces, Philip Kennicott's art and architecture criticism, the newspaper's reporting on Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, its masterful "Citizen K Street" lobbying series, and all sorts of other top-notch journalism.
The same goes for The New York Times. Its default ideological assumptions aren't mine, but it isn't difficult to recognize the tremendous amount of excellent work it publishes or all the reporting it does that can't be found elsewhere. And let's be frank. Stepping back and taking a broad look at the ideological spectrum, these are center-left, mass-market publications—agree or disagree with their assumptions, a grown man should be able to read them without getting upset, if only for all the high-quality content that has nothing to do with ideology. It isn't as if most articles are dripping with disdain for conservatives. The nature of a newspaper is that many articles don't touch on the question.
Had Antonin Scalia said that he regards the range of information or quality of reporting elsewhere as better, that would be a good reason to subscribe elsewhere. But an emotional reaction to unfair treatment of one's ideological tribe? If you're a Supreme Court justice who needs to stay reasonably informed about the world and doesn't read much online, "it upsets me every morning" seems like a poor, somewhat childish reason to cancel a newspaper subscription.
Given that Scalia mostly listens to talk radio, it isn't as if he has a general aversion toward shrillness and unspoken ideological assumptions—just ones not his own. (To his credit, his favorite talk-radio show, Bill Bennett's, is one of the better ones.)
Americans on the left and right are increasingly engaged in overwrought offense-taking and emotionalism when engaging news and ideas. It's a tendency that I worry about generally, but I especially worry about it coming from a Supreme Court justice. I'd hope that they'd all be more ... unflappable, and I'd be as appalled if Elena Kagan or Sonia Sotomayor averred that they just found The Claremont Review of Books or City Journal too upsetting to read. There is a particular irony in Scalia expressing upset of this sort given that his own opinions evoke in some critics a refusal to engage on the substance because of tangential upset.
He's one to talk about tone!
The universe of writers and publications that treat my ideological and political beliefs fairly and without rancor is tiny. I benefit hugely from stuff outside that bubble. Evidently, Scalia doesn't benefit from journalism outside his bubble. That isn't to say the man should be condemned for this one flaw—just that it is a flaw.