Thursday, May 14, 2009

Quoting Out of Context: A Reason for Not Allowing the Broadcasting of Oral Arguments

As I was reading an op-ed in the New York Times, I recalled an earlier post written by my colleague, Nima, which discussed whether television broadcasting of Supreme Court oral arguments should be allowed. The op-ed, written by Adam Cohen, argues that the Voting Rights Act may be in jeopardy because it “has run smack into the ‘federalism’ crusade of Court’s conservative bloc.” Cohen justifies his reasoning by quoting statements made by Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia during oral arguments. Unfortunately, Cohen takes the quotes out of context so that they fit his argument, and, in the process, misleads his readers.

For instance, Cohen paints a false picture of Justice Scalia’s reasoning:
Justice Scalia even asked, “Do you ever seriously expect Congress to vote against a re-extension of the Voting Rights Act?” Apparently, the fact that there is such overwhelming support for the act is an argument for why the Supreme Court should strike it down.

Now, anyone with a legal education should know that this is not Justice Scalia’s reasoning. Even if Justice Scalia was of the opinion that Congress did not have the power to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act, the popularity of the Act would not be a factor in his analysis. As a journalist with a Harvard Law degree, he obviously understands this (and, yes, Cohen is yet another Harvard Law alum not practicing law). Cohen uses the quotations only as a rhetorical device to bolster his (rather weak) argument.

Cohen’s article exemplifies the reason why oral arguments should not be broadcasted. Quoting out of context, like Cohen has done, causes the public to misconstrue the Court’s reasoning. Readers of Cohen’s article assume that Justice Scalia believes the Act should be struck down because there is “such overwhelming support.” This may inevitably lead to a loss of confidence in the Court.

If a respectable news source like the New York Times, and a journalist with a Harvard Law degree, can use these quotes out of context, just imagine what other, perhaps less respectable, sources may do (ahem, Fox News).


  1. Wouldn't broadcasting oral arguments do exactly the opposite of what you claim? By allowing the general public to watch oral arguments, they'd be able to see for themselves that Cohen is bullshitting them. Otherwise, they have to take Cohen's word for it since they didn't see/hear the arguments themselves. No?

  2. 12.34-

    They woudln't see for themselves if one liners were pulled and commentary was added. This would be exactly what Cohen did except a broader demographic would be exposed to it. Good articl.e

  3. If you misquote someone based on their oral statements to support your argument, you can do the same thing based on court transcripts. Anyone can be irresponsible. On the other hand, we will always have the original transcript, or video in this case, to clarify. I simply don't favor the media having free access to the Supreme Court out of tradition.

  4. @11:35;

    It is true that forbidding media access to oral arguments won't cure the irresponsibility prevalent in journalism. The original transcript will still exist and irresponsible journalists will continue to abuse it.

    But, I think you'll agree that a video snippet can have a more powerful effect. Imagine The Daily Show airing a brief video of Justice Scalia's quote above and then cutting back to a dumbfounded Jon Stewart. Many (most?) Americans don't get their news from a print source, but, instead, rely on shows like these. Such video snippets can have a devastating effect on the Court's power as the population becomes increasingly disenfranchised by what they (wrongly) believe to be the Court's faulty reasoning.

  5. @ J Borden...

    Thoughtful response. I agree to an extent and think you make a valid point, which must be weighed against the democratic virtue of openness.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.