ABC News didn't use any labels such as liberal or progressive to
describe Judge Sonia Sotomayor during its Tuesday morning coverage of
her nomination to the Supreme Court. On the other hand, when President
Bush nominated Justice Samuel Alito to the high court in 2005, the
network's correspondents repeatedly used the conservative label to
describe the nominee.
During the first segment of the 7am EDT hour of Good Morning America, before Sotomayor's name emerged, This Week anchor George Stephanopoulos summarized who was on President Obama's short list for the court nomination, including Sotomayor, describing the former or current occupations they have, but no ideological descriptions. When anchor Diane Sawyer asked about "what kind of fight is the White House anticipating" from Republicans in the Senate and "how do they plan to deal with it," Stephanopoulos further explained that "Republicans and conservatives have already prepared dossiers on all three of the top candidates....I've talked to several Republicans in the Senate about this - that the chances they're going to defeat President Obama's nominee are very, very low. The bar they're trying to set - they're trying to have a debate over the future of the court, over the ideological direction of the court." But he never mentioned Sotomayor's judicial philosophy or political leaning.
An hour and a half later, as the president's nomination was leaked,
Sawyer had Stephanopoulos, along with correspondents Jake Tapper,
Jonathan Karl, and Jan Crawford Greenburg, on to give details about the
pick. Stephanopoulos and Greenburg played up the nominee's life story,
and how it would be "very difficult for Republicans to oppose Judge
Sotomayor because of her background," and how "conservatives have
already signaled that they will make an issue over some of her
decisions on the appeals court." After Sawyer mentioned how President
Obama "talked about empathy...in his selection," Tapper explained that
"a lot of conservatives have criticized that. Orrin Hatch, formerly the
leading Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, has said that
'empathy' could be a code for a liberal activist, and, of course, the
chairman of the Republican National Committee has said empathy is an
excuse for liberal judges to write what's not in the law, but what they
feel is in their heart." Tapper's hinting that Sotomayor might a
liberal is the only time such a label was used in ABC's coverage the
After President Obama formally announced Sotomayer as his nominee at 10:15 Eastern, Tapper described how some of President Obama's political allies would combat criticisms from Republicans and/or conservatives, again using the "liberal" tag:
TAPPER: I just wanted to touch on a couple things going on in the room. One is, there were a lot of Hispanic and Latino groups, and a lot of women's groups' representatives here as well, and I think, in regard to...how some people take issue with Judge Sotomayor's brusque manner - you're going to hear a lot of liberal women's groups say that's not the kind of comment you would hear if it was the same exact story, but it was a man. Nobody has an issue with a man being arrogant or brusque, but they have an issue with a woman being brusque. That's something that you'll hear from a lot of these women's groups.
and Greenburg returned as well after the president's announcement,
repeating their earlier points, all the while not using any ideological
labels to describe the nominee. Stephanopoulos, the former Clinton
aide, emphasized how President Obama was "moved by the [nominee's]
story as he was telling it up on the podium....Then you top it all off
with he was practically daring the senators to vote against the justice
who saved baseball. That's her experience back in '94,'95 as a judge
who got involved in the baseball strike and pretty much solved it."
Greenburg went further in this vein: "...We saw some of those other top
contenders being pushed by his [Obama's] legal advisers, but the
political team realized and calculated that she, because of this
compelling life story, the first historic justice as an Hispanic, will
be hardest for Republicans to oppose, and we're already seeing some of
those comments this morning."
Jonathan Karl did mention in the post-announcement coverage how Sotomayor, "of all the names that President Obama was widely reported to be looking at for this nomination, that this is the most controversial. So they will be gearing up for a serious fight on this, Diane, and they'll also be supported in that by outside conservative groups, who have been gearing up for this months, probably even years." But again, there was no ideological label used for the nominee, compared with the "conservative" label used for the opposition groups.
Three and a half years earlier, ABC's correspondents and anchors very liberally used the conservative label  to describe Justice Alito when he was nominated by President Bush. For example, Jessica Yellin, the network's White House correspondent at the time, used the "conservative" label five times in the course of fifty seconds to describe the jurist:
YELLIN: Good morning. President Bush will please his CONSERVATIVE base with this pick. Samuel Alito is certain to be opposed by many Democrats, but no one will accuse him of being unqualified. Samuel Alito is a federal judge in New Jersey with established CONSERVATIVE credentials. He has well known views on constitutional issues and unquestioned intellectual heft. Alito is considered a law and order CONSERVATIVE, and many Democrats believe he would oppose abortion rights because he supported a law that required women to notify their husbands before having an abortion. In choosing Alito, the President has made good on a campaign promise to pick Supreme Court nominees in the mold of CONSERVATIVE Justice Antonin Scalia. Alito once clerked for Justice Scalia, and his writing is so similar to the CONSERVATIVE justices, he's sometimes nicknamed 'Scalito.'
More on 2005 labeling of Roberts and Alito in earlier BiasAlert, "Flashback: Nets Were Quick to Tag Alito and Roberts as 'Ultra' and 'Hardline' 'Conservative. '"
-Matthew Balan is a news analyst at the Media Research Center.