Katrina overwhelming nomination coverage

Scant coverage of the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee John Roberts spells trouble for his political opposition as the media focuses its resources on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The nomination process — the first for a chief justice in nearly 20 years — is expected to go quickly and without the level of media scrutiny that fed the showdowns over Robert Bork or justices Clarence Thomas or Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

News execs Friday were finalizing plans to balance coverage of the Roberts nomination with the next phase of Hurricane Katrina.

“The aftermath of Katrina is going to be with us for a long time. At the same time, the next Supreme Court chief justice is going to be with us for the next 20 or 30 years, so the confirmation hearings deserve a significant amount of coverage,” said Jon Banner, exec producer of ABC’s “World News Tonight.”

Roberts’ good luck

But news execs said circumstances dictate less coverage for Roberts than the story would merit in a normal news cycle, a heartening message for Roberts and his supporters, who want nothing more than the hearings to make short, and boring, TV.

“I think you’ll see less of Roberts — and not just because of Katrina but because he’s a moderate in temperament if not judicial philosophy,” said MSNBC commentator Joe Scarborough, who plans a half-hour on the Roberts nomination Monday but little else.

“It certainly helps John Roberts to have little coverage because to date the left hasn’t been able to mobilize a base of opposition, and that won’t happen because of Katrina,” said Patrick Trueman, senior legal counsel at the conservative Family Research Counsel.

Most of what the public has heard from the media has been positive, according to a study being released today by the Center for Media and Public Affairs. The group said nearly 60% of media stories about Roberts’ nomination have been favorable, with the amount of negative stories nowhere near those that appeared on Bork and Thomas.

Needed: Sound bites

Roberts’ moderate temperament will further challenge his adversaries to generate sound-bite material that tears viewers away from the compelling pictures that continue to come out of New Orleans.

“Democrats are sure to frame their questions provocatively, but with no coverage, it’s like the tree falling in the forest and no one hears,” said Paul Waldman, senior fellow at the liberal Media Matters for America.

The broadcast networks said Katrina remains their top story for next week, but that they would devote minutes to Roberts as events warrant. CBS’ John Roberts will anchor coverage from New York; NBC’s Brian Williams will anchor coverage on MSNBC as well as on “Nightly News.”

A lot about the coverage will depend on the theme that emerges as the hearings begin today.

CNN will cover the hearings, which begin at noon today through Wolf Blitzer’s “Situation Room” and will call on legal and political analysts Jeffrey Toobin, Jeff Greenfield and former attorney general John Ashcroft.

During the first week after Katrina, ABC’s “Nightline” beat Jay Leno and David Letterman in the ratings that week for the first time since the initial invasion of Iraq in March 2003. “Nightline” has no plans to depart from Katrina this week, a spokeswoman said.

It all spells smooth sailing for Roberts — but that doesn’t necessarily play into the hands of Republican strategists looking toward President Bush’s second Supreme Court nomination this fall. “With little coverage, people won’t see just how extreme some of the liberal groups have been in attacking him,” Trueman said. “We’d almost prefer that they tire the public out with their campaign against Roberts.”

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