Sotomayor's Treatment in the Media; On Being Talked About but Not Being Allowed to Talk

Tom Rosenstiel, the Director at the Project for Excellence in Journalism, puts out a report every week about what was covered in the news the preceding week. Yesterday when I cracked it opened, it came as no surprise that for May 25-31, 2009, "Sotomayor Spin Wars Dominate[d] the Narrative."

His opening statement stood in awe of how big a story this was, "based on [the] velocity and ferocity of the new media ecosystem in 2009, one forged by the election, by the rise of social media and cable, and even more than ever defined by speed, political surrogates, diversity and argument."

The report said Sotomayor's nomination filled 24% of the newshole the week of May 25-31 and ethnicity played a central role in that coverage. "Fully 40% of stories about the nominee referenced her cultural background, meaning her Latina heritage accounted for at least 25% of those stories."

And what was bugging me all week about that coverage? This was very much missing in Rosensteil's analysis: Most of the media ecosystem talking heads helping to fill that news hole were not as diverse as, perhaps, the people they're covering.

They were pro -- like Neil Steinberg in the Chicago Sun-Times who agreed with me that the media should have focused on her qualifications more than with her backstory -- and they were con, like the Chicago Tribune's John Kass who followed the "reverse racist" storyline. And they were even black, like Clarence Page who gawked at the drama, and also female, like Kathleen Star Parker who said we should wait to see what the woman has to say for herself before declaring her guilty of a leftist Latino agenda.

Hmmmm...let's see who are we missing here?...I'll give you a hint. Here's what media columnist Richard "Journal-isms" Prince pointed out in his piece "Latino Commentators Scarce on Sotomayor" when referring to the number of Hispanic journalists who spoke about Sotomayor's nomination on the Sunday morning political talk-shows:

"
There are no Latino journalists on that list.

It's not just this Sunday. In an analysis of the four Sunday broadcast shows this year through April 12, Media Matters for America found that black Americans had been on the Sunday shows 40 times.

"Media Matters also measured the number of Latino guests or panelists on 'Meet the Press,' 'This Week,' 'Face the Nation' and 'Fox News Sunday' this year for the same period," wrote David Bauder of the Associated Press, which commissioned the study.

"The count?

"Zero."

Playing Devil's advocate as I so often like doing, I contacted Kevin Olivas, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists' Parity Project Director, and asked whether this even mattered, since a good reporter can report on anything.

He responded in an email:

"It is true that there are good journalists out there who do not happen to be Hispanic who have done a good job in covering the Latino community," Olivas said, "This may mirror Judge Sotomayor's now infamous quote, but it is very difficult to relate the experiences of Latinos when you have not lived that experience yourself.

If we were back in time and there was an opportunity to have a panel on the civil rights struggle for African Americans and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Ralph Abernathy or Rosa Parks were available, but someone said, 'Nah, let's just go with a panel of people who are not African American to discuss this issue,' how representative would that be?"

Kevin makes an excellent point. I explained it this way to someone else who was having a hard time understanding where Latino journalists -- rare as we are -- are coming from regarding this slight.

Look at it this way: You know how English-only speakers dislike it when Spanish-speakers chatter away within earshot? The natural human instinct is to imagine that the chatterers are talking about them but they can't understand so therefore it makes them uncomfortable.

Now imagine how Hispanics feel in a similar situation: here's a national story about the first Latina Supreme Court Justice nominee and there are plenty of us who can objectively articulate the pros and cons of her merits - with the bonus of a culturally diverse viewpoint - but we're not allowed to speak. We have to let non-Hispanic news and opinion journalists speak for us, even though we're very much within ear shot and capable of answering for ourselves.

"How is it possible that Latinos can be left out of the discussion among journalists regarding such a historic event as the nomination of the first Hispanic to the U.S. Supreme Court," Olivas said. "Are there no qualified Latino journalists who could take part in this discussion?"

Of course, I'd have been more than happy to help Meet the Press' David Gregory pronounce Sonia's last name - it's "Soto-MY-or" - but I guess I'll just have to wait until next time.

"Latinos are part of the American experience," Olivas commiserated, "Leaving out our voices means telling an incomplete story."

Esther J. Cepeda is an opinion journalist and expert on the issues of U.S. Hispanics and Latinos. She writes about that and much, much more on www.600words.com