The Latest Media Attack on Brett Kavanaugh Is Really Off-Base

WASHINGTON - APRIL 14: A fan of the Washington Nationals hold up a game day ticket before the teams home opener against Arizona Diamondbacks on April 14, 2005 at RFK Stadium in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

As just about anyone could have predicted, there have been a multitude of negative stories about Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh after his Monday nomination, from the conspiratorial to the openly bigoted. But I thought I'd highlight two incidents of media bias that struck me as, well, just plain lame.

A Wednesday Washington Post investigation of Kavanaugh's finances was headlined "Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh piled up credit card debt by purchasing Nationals tickets, White House says." The lede of the piece reported that "Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh incurred tens of thousands of dollars of credit card debt buying baseball tickets over the past decade and at times reported liabilities that could have exceeded the value of his cash accounts and investment assets."

Oh dear. They go on to report, "In 2016, Kavanaugh reported having between $60,000 and $200,000 in debt accrued over three credit cards and a loan. Each credit card held between $15,000 and $50,000 in debt, and a Thrift Savings Plan loan was between $15,000 and $50,000."

And then comes the next paragraph: "The credit card debts and loan were either paid off or fell below the reporting requirements in 2017, according to the filings."

The White House, which provided Kavanaugh's financial disclosures, explained that he bought Washington Nationals season tickets for himself and a group of friends at the end of 2016, and then collected and paid off the debt the following year. "At this time the Kavanaughs have no debt beyond their home mortgage," White House spokesman Raj Shah said.

Which makes the WaPo story entirely pointless. And that was before the piece was updated to note that Kavanaugh has a half-million dollar government retirement account, making it highly unlikely his liabilities could have exceeded his assets as the lede speculates.

I'm not entirely sure what the issue would be even if Kavanaugh was still in debt. At least with equally weak stories about Marco Rubio's financial difficulties during the 2016 election, there was an argument to be made that the president has to show he is competent enough to oversee a budget on the federal level. But what does a judge's net worth have to do with his ability to rule on cases?

I guess you could make the case that Kavanaugh's debt left him susceptible to bribery. But that seems like grounds for denying high-level government positions to anyone who isn't wealthy. I can't shake the suspicion that if Kavanaugh were a liberal, the fact that he would be the least wealthy justice on the Supreme Court would be promoted as a positive, as evidence he is a down-to-earth, lifelong public servant.

It amuses me that the many negative stories and narratives about Kavanaugh are starting to contradict each other. On one hand, Kavanaugh is a debt-ridden pauper. On the other, he's an "elite" who lives "at the center of establishment Washington, with streets lined with million-dollar homes" and "paid $1.2 million for their four-bedroom house." Kavanaugh is a Catholic extremist who wants to end birth control. He's also a party boy kegger fan who joined a fraternity obsessed with "having sex with coeds." Call him Judge Rorschach.

Even when there's an unambiguously positive Kavanaugh angle, the media have found ways to shift the focus elsewhere. Take this New York Times tweet, which is careful to note that the gender diversity among Kavanaugh's staff is "something conservatives want you to remember":

Call me crazy, but I feel like intrepid journalists would be more interested in the story that Kavanaugh was endorsed by "every single one of Judge Kavanaugh’s clerks not prohibited by their current or pending employment," including "Republicans, Democrats, and independents," and that a majority of his clerks were women, not that others are pointing that out. Even the headline—"Judge Kavanaugh’s Former Clerks: Diverse, and Deployed to Vouch for Him"—focuses on the fact that Kavanaugh's clerks were "deployed" to vouch for him.

It's an odd framing, because the Times story is actually quite positive! The efforts of a conservative PR firm is mentioned in a few paragraphs, and the rest of the piece faithfully recites the effusive praise Kavanaugh's clerks gave him. But for some reason, the organized effort to get Kavanaugh positive press—standard for a SCOTUS nominee—is given an outsized focus by the editors.

It's sort of the reverse of the "Conservative Pounce" formulation that has long irked right-wing media critics. When a conservative does something scandalous, the media justifiably recognizes that the story is the scandal. But far too often, a story of a liberal scandal will be framed in terms of the fact that conservatives are angry about it and "seize" on it for political gain. The insinuation is that the conservative scandal is legitimate while the liberal scandal is just part of a partisan narrative.

This is a more benign version to be sure. But when Merrick Garland‘s and Sonia Sotomayor‘s former law clerks likewise penned letters endorsing their boss, the media coverage was simply on the letters with nary a mention of how they came about. I guess maybe conservative judges' law clerks actually are pawns while liberal judges' law clerks spontaneously organize and draft statements? But that seems unlikely.

While we're vaguely on the topic, remind me, what was the New York Times‘s front page headline the day Obama named his first Supreme Court nominee?