SCOTUSblog publisher Tom Goldstein said in a forum at the University of Georgia Monday that the “tipping point” behind a favorable turn in the blog’s long-standing campaign to receive Supreme Court press credentials was earning a Peabody Award last May.
Supreme Court tradition demands news organizations earn a Senate press credential before receiving formal press access to the Supreme Court. In the months following the announcement of the award — an honor editor Amy Howe called a “wonderful validation” — the Senate press gallery granted Lyle Denniston, the blog’s chief on-the-ground reporter, this essential first step.
“In the wake of the Peabody, it [being denied Senate press credentials] became kind of unsustainable, I think,” Goldstein said. “The Senate press gallery, which is essentially a private organization to which the credentialing decision has been essentially turned over, took us more seriously as an institution. And they were more willing to credential us.”
Seated at tables emblazoned with the words “Grady College,” with a pattern of Peabodys behind them, a collection of some of the most cited Supreme Court reporters in the United States spoke at the Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies.
Veteran legal reporters Pete Williams of NBC News and Tony Mauro of the National Law Journal joined Goldstein and Howe to discuss the difficulties of Supreme Court reporting and what to expect in the upcoming term. Janet Murray, a digital media expert from the Georgia Institute of Technology, provided an academic perspective.
The complexities of covering the highest court manifested colorfully, as panelists engaged in disagreements over court procedure and whether the Justices should move toward greater transparency.
Howe and Williams diverged on the availability of audio recording of the summaries of opinions read from the bench.
Murray broke from the rest of the panelists when she made the case that, though custom forbids electronic devices in the courtroom, only the complicity of the press corps prevents smuggling in miniature audio recording devices and cameras.
“At this point we have new technologies, so let’s radically rethink — ‘what is the story?’” Murray said. “I’m making a prediction here that the force of a more pervasive media environment will overwhelm this set of really arcane prohibitions.”
That issue emblematizes the mixed approach of the Supreme Court to its own coverage. The Justices maintain enough openness to allow journalists to fulfill their right to report, as set down in the document the court holds dear: the Constitution. Yet the justices remain remote enough from reporters to apolitically consider legal issues. They impose barriers to reporting — banning cellphones or laptops, forbidding audio or video recording, barring photographs — to stay sacrosanct.
The Supreme Court limits personal contact with reporters to lunch once a year, Mauro said.
“This is how it’s done — you get a call from the public information office, and public information officer says, ‘you know, you wrote such and such, are you really sure that’s correct?’ And I’ll be reprimanded," Mauro said. "And I know it’s coming from upstairs, from the justices.”
In a world accustomed to the 24-hour news cycle and instantaneous updates on breaking news, the Supreme Court holds off on releasing the transcript of oral arguments until the end of the day.
Until five or six years ago, observers of the court could not take notes. Howe said an effort by journalists to lobby the court to view orders 30 minutes earlier proved unsuccessful.
Goldstein summarized the challenge the justices face succinctly.
“The court has no actual power except the power to persuade, and one consequence of that is that there is great power to them in their oracle-like standing in our culture,” he said. “Aside from concerns about looks, I think the justices realize that in personalizing the court to themselves, in making it more about — ‘oh, it’s Justice Scalia over here and it’s Justice Ginsburg over here and it’s Justice Sotomayor over here, they detract from the sense in the nation that they are a group that objectively articulates the law.”
Appearing oracle through oratory precludes cameras, Williams said.
“Frankly, I have complicated views on television in the Supreme Court. Because I’ve sat there so often and thought, ‘oh, my heavens, if citizens could just see this. It is so inspiring to see.’ You would be so proud of this institution, the Supreme Court, if you could just see how really good oral argument is,” Williams said. “On the other hand, there’s value in a reflective moment.”
The panelists agreed that Supreme Court reporters, unlike observers of other branches of government, have no interest in scoring scoops from insider sources.
“The costs are too high, the relationships of the press corps with the people inside the building are too thin, and there are too few agendas that would benefit rather than being harmed by leaking,” Goldstein said. “We do almost no enterprise reporting at all.”
Rather, SCOTUSblog derives its Peabody award-winning value from interpreting legalese for laypersons interested in the high-stakes cases the Supreme Court routinely decides.
All of the journalists on the panel exhibited that skill, often interpreting the more informed, esoteric questions for the rest of the audience.
Unlike the congressional and White House press corps, who routinely rotate reporters to prevent an overly familiar relationship with politicians from fomenting, Goldstein and Howe, who have both argued cases before the Supreme Court, said that experience with legal issues is essential.
Murray said in an email interview prior to the event that it may seem “disorienting to some” that new media should cover an institution of precedent and decorum, but insisted such an approach is demanded by possibilities of technology.
“As I tell my students, good digital media design is not about bringing the latest bells and whistles to spice up the old legacy media formats. Good digital design starts by radically rethinking the core task — in this case what people need to understand about the workings of the Supreme Court.”
Much like the Supreme Court, either through radical transformation or incremental steps, if Monday’s panel is illustrative, journalism about the third branch is changing.