Television News and the Supreme Court: All the News That's Fit to Air?

By Whitmore, Nancy | Journalism History, Autumn 1999 | Go to article overview

Television News and the Supreme Court: All the News That's Fit to Air?


Whitmore, Nancy, Journalism History


Slotnick, Elliot E. and Jennifer A. Segal. Television News and the Supreme Court. All the News That's Fit to Air? Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998.264 pp. $19.95.

Television News and the Supreme Court focuses primarily on the nature of network television news coverage of the Court during the early 1980s through the mid- I 990s, a time frame referred to in the book as the "age of infotaimnent." To illuminate the coverage of the Court during this period, authors Elliot E. Slotnick and Jennifer A. Segal rely primarily on interviews and personal correspondence with veteran Court reporters Fred Graham (a former CBS reporter), Carl Stem (a former NBC reporter), and Tim O'Brien (ABC), as well as other writings by Graham and Stern and interviews with Jim Stewart (CBS), Pete Williams (NBC), and Toni House (public information officer of the Court).

Court reporters, as well as House, conclude that network television news coverage of the Court has diminished over the years. Part of the problem is the Court itself Today's Supreme Court decides fewer cases and bases more of its opinions on narrow legalisms that do not translate well in the fastpaced, visual world of television news.

Corresponding to this less aggressive Court is a television news industry defined more and more by entertainment values. News, these reporters say, is being packaged by producers, instead of driven by reporters, to appeal to larger audiences. The stoic Supreme Court, with its ban on television cameras and its reluctance to issue broad-reaching landmark decisions, is viewed as less able to attract viewers. In the end, the amount of coverage the Court receives and the quality of that coverage have declined.

Slotnick and Segal, both political scientists, support this premise with empirical evidence gleaned from a content analysis of network news coverage of the 1989 and 1994 Court terms.

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