Scalia Worries Televising SCOTUS Proceedings Will Misinform
Actually, Antonin Scalia is right. I do not write those words often, or lightly.
And it is actually Kevin Drum who comes off as glib and dismissive in this recent post on the Supreme Court Justice. In it, Drum takes Scalia to task for arguing that Supreme Court proceedings shouldn’t be televised.
Scalia makes the case that the American people will not be better educated as a result of televised Supreme Court proceedings because they will not watch the actual proceedings, but rather will be speed-fed them via 15 and 30 second segments on the nightly and cable news shows.
Drum construes this as follows,
“But complaining that the American public won’t give your proceedings the deference you think they deserve? That the media might dare to play short snippets of your arguments? Color me very unimpressed.”
This is despite the fact that Drum grants everything Scalia says,
“And let me add: it’s not that Scalia is wrong. Of course the media will do stupid stuff. Of course they’ll play the most incendiary snippets they can find. Of course Super PACs will do the same. And of course most of the public won’t ever bother to truly understand all the details of the proceedings.”
But “So what?” remarks Drum. “Nobody thinks that’s a good reason to limit access to any other branch of government. Politics is a messy game. It’s often unfair. That’s life, and in a democracy the public should get to see it unfold regardless of whether you think they’re smart enough to appreciate it.”
Except that, well, the public already has access to this information. Transcripts are posted the same day as arguments are made and, although seating is limited and offered on a first come, first serve basis, the proceedings are already open to the public.
So it’s not as if these events occur in secret, or that the average person does not have access to them. There is, of course, a barrier to entry of sorts, since one must go and seek out this information, in most cases, rather than wait to be lazily bombarded with pieces of it when a news program decides to show footage. This has the beneficial effect, however, of not politicizing the Supreme Court even further beyond its current partisan squabbling.
Because the television news media does abuse information, intentionally presenting it in its most inflammatory or controversial light, with an eye toward increasing ratings among those audience members affiliated with the lowest common denominator.
Scalia attempts to note, but does so poorly, that there is something just plain different about seeing an excerpt vs. reading it. That is of course true, and one need only let the imagination free for a moment to realize how much time would be spent watching Justices make faces, deliver curt or snide questions, or listening to the arguers stumble, stutter, and make utter fools out of themselves.
Drum argues that this is just the price of democracy; it’s messy but necessary. Why further mess in this regard is necessary is hardly clear though. In fact, I would go even further and propose taking cameras out of Congress as well. Does anyone want to advance an example of the last time public discourse or policy deliberations, were in any way helped, enhanced, or enlightened, by watching a bunch of predominantly old white men, ramble non sequitous talking points into the camera, with the hope that somehow it will eventually reach the inattentive eyes and ears of their constituents back home?
Imagine, for a moment, if all of the cameras were taken out of Congress, and Congress men and women actually had to talk to one another? Or imagine if they continued launching rhetorical jalopies into the stilted air of the capitol, despite no one else being there to hear or care, and think about that moment of revelation when they realize what the actual point of Congressional proceedings are? How much time and money is wasted on campaign stump speeching couched in the pale shadows of “the people’s business?”
There is nothing arrogant, condescending, or otherwise elitist in noting that to take up the project of understanding the complexity and nuance of policy proposals and negotiations, or of legal arguments and constitutional interpretation, requires time, energy, and care. And that these are not the virtues of cable or television news, and that if someone wants to embark upon this endeavor, they should do so with the full awareness that it is not easy, the road is fraught with contradiction and paradox, and the fruits of this labor are owed to no one but those diligent enough to do the job right.
If Drum feels that every official government proceeding should be digi-fied and archived for all to abuse, decontextualize, and consume uncritically, he should first demonstrate why providing shortcuts like this will enhance our democracy, or better yet, where in the past the lack of these info-tainment segments have denigrated it.
Sunshine is the best disinfectant except when it lulls us into believing that just because the sun is shining we can’t still get sick. More transparency is great, but not always a necessary or inevitable result of making information accessible in more easily consumable ways.