Rethinking the Supreme Court press corps for a new era.
Earlier this week, my colleague Jack Shafer argued that one of the great benefits of newsroom buyouts is that they afford opportunities for new voices and forms in media otherwise resistant to change. Specifically, Shafer pointed to the opportunity that awaits the New York Times' Adam Liptak, who, come October, will inherit the Supreme Court beat from its 30-year veteran, Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent Linda Greenhouse. The "young whippersnapper," writes Shafer, will have the chance to answer some (or all) of these great, looming questions about court coverage:
In the Web era, is the best use of the Times'column inches the traditional day-after-oral-arguments story and the day-after-decisions dispatches? Is there a more creative way to report on the court? Should Liptak cover the court with more argument and greater point of view, the way he covers the law in his current Sidebar column? Whether dug-in journalists are excellent or mediocre, their departures give publications the opportunity to reinvent themselves.
In what's either a piece of happy serendipity or an indication that Supreme Court correspondents really need to see other people, I spent a large part of this week in some discussions on the very same subject—one of which happened alongside the earlier-referenced whippersnapper himself. Reflections about the change in Supreme Court press coverage are particularly apt now, not just because of the changing of the guard at the Times,but because while changes at the court itself happen glacially, changes in technology and the media have made covering the court an entirely different proposition today than it was even five years ago. Never one to decline a challenge from Jack Shafer, I heartily agree that this is a wonderful beat in need of some tweaking. And it's not just incumbent upon the whippersnapper to re-imagine the job. Seems to me we are, all of us, doing this already, in some rather interesting ways, and our readers may have some thoughts on the matter, too.
What follow are some of my own tentative thoughts about how coverage of the court has changed in a very short time and how we can do a better job prying open the big, white marble box on Maryland Avenue to better benefit our readers:
• Speed. Not so very long ago, most Supreme Court reporters ambled out of oral arguments, enjoyed a light snack and a beverage, and then filed their stories for publication in the next morning's paper. Today, many of my colleagues file early-afternoon versions of their pieces online with a more in-depth treatment to follow that evening. Not so very long ago, we frantically scribbled notes about the day's proceedings in shorthand and hoped we weren't making too many mistakes. Some of us (er, me) wildly e-mailed Tony Mauro as deadline approached to check quotes. Today, official transcripts of oral argument appear online at the court's Web site around the same time the first Web stories are posted. That means interested consumers of Supreme Court news can actually read about the proceedings in their entirety just hours after they end (and sometimes hours before we have filed). Ditto for opinions that now post at the court's official Web site before most of us have had time to read even the head notes. In fact, at some point last summer it occurred to me that I could probably cover the massive decision dump of late June faster between the SCOTUSblog live blog and posted opinions than from the court's own chambers. Yes, that's the sound of Einstein's space-time brain exploding.
• Experts.Not so very long ago, if we needed a quote about a Supreme Court case, we could just dial some helpful constitutional law professor in his Ivy League office and weave his legal wisdom into our pieces. Today, huge numbers of our leading legal thinkers are just too busy blogging the cases themselves to return our calls. This goes beyond citizen journalism. This is extreme, hard-core expert journalism. Doug Berman, Rick Hasen, and myriad other subject-matter experts can—transcript in hand—thus "cover" oral argument from Ohio, California, or the space shuttle about as quickly as we can. This is a good thing. But it may leave the traditional beat reporter to wonder how to add value, beyond just transcribing oral argument and interpreting opinions. Between same-day transcripts, Slate'snew "Convictions" blog, and the Volokh Conspiracy,I could be looking for work come September.
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.
Photograph of U.S. Supreme Court by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.