A Blackout at the Supreme Court

Originally posted: March 24, 2012

by Jeffrey M. McCall, professor of communication at DePauw University, Greencastle, Indiana. Originally published in the Indianapolis Star.

The Supreme Court has again rejected pleas from the media to provide television coverage of its proceedings. The court will soon hear arguments about the nation’s health-care overhaul, but cameras will not be allowed in the chambers. Note to television journalists: The Supreme Court is just not interested in your ratings, your coverage challenges, your sound bite mentality or your press exceptionalism arguments.

The Supreme Court’s upcoming ruling on the Affordable Care Act will have major implications for the nation’s economy and the health of its citizens. It also will play a key role in election-year politics. The court recognizes the importance of the case, scheduling six hours of oral arguments spread over three days, beginning Monday. That’s the most hours of discussion for a single issue in at least 40 years.

The magnitude of the case sparked hopes among media organizations that the court might cave on its longstanding prohibition against television cameras. The court, however, won’t be swayed by media or public pressure.

In a small concession, the court will release audio recordings of the proceedings within two hours of each session’s close. The court normally releases audio on its website only on Fridays. In a news release, the court indicated it was providing expedited release of audio recordings “because of the extraordinary public interest” in these hearings. As usual, written transcripts will be available shortly after each day’s hearing.

The television industry has plenty of allies in Congress, where hassling the court to allow cameras has been an annual exercise for 15 years. Last month, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 11-7 to force television into the Supreme Court. Committee chairman and Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy said the recent impetus for the bill was the upcoming health-care argument. The legislation has stalled, but even if the bill eventually passes, the court might well ignore it. Note to Congress: The Supreme Court won’t be easily pushed around.

National polls show support for allowing cameras in the court. A Gallup survey late last year showed 72 percent of people wanted televised coverage of the health-care oral arguments. Note to the public: The court doesn’t make decisions based on popular opinion.

In today’s visual culture, people wonder why the justices refuse to allow camera coverage. C-SPAN chairman Brian Lamb told The New York Times recently that some justices don’t like the prospect of having their comments and questions reduced to sound bites. That’s true, but there is more to it. The practices of television news would carry Supreme Court coverage into areas that have nothing to do with the cases being argued. Body language experts would examine every eye blink of every justice. On-air pundits would scour video to make comments on the appearance and even health of the justices. Sideshow television coverage would analyze why Clarence Thomas seldom speaks in hearings, would label Antonin Scalia an extremist every time he spoke, and assess whether Ruth Bader Ginsburg is occasionally dozing off.

To get television into the Supreme Court, the broadcast industry will have to do better than it did with Casey Anthony’s trial last year. It also will have to do better than a Cleveland TV station whose cameras were kept out of a federal trial earlier this year. That station reported on the trial’s proceedings by using puppets in a fake courtroom setting to portray the key people in the hearing.

Television cameras will eventually arrive in the Supreme Court. Current justices, such as Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayor, have experience with televised proceedings from their time in federal appeals courts and seemingly are comfortable with the notion. Various pilot studies with television are ongoing in federal courts in select states and two appellate courts. When the cameras roll in, however, it won’t be because the justices were sufficiently badgered. It will be because they believe that justice can still be effectively served with television present. Broadcasters should strategically consider seeking access for a low-profile case as first entry to the Supreme Court. Exploiting a high-profile case like health care to get television access is opportunism that the current court does not appreciate.

CollegeNews Story Archive

CollegeNews is now Liberal Arts Success

CollegeNews has brought you the latest information from over 125 liberal arts colleges for over ten years. Now it’s transforming into something even greater. Visit liberalartssuccess.org and learn more about the impact of liberal arts education on the individual and on society.

Visit the Liberal Arts Success website »

Search CollegeNews