NYT’s One-Sided Sotomayor Framing: Accident or Agenda?

The New York Times‘ front-page piece today (5/29/09) on Sonia Sotomayor’s work with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund is a good example of what is meant by “framing”–and a bad example of how it can distort a story.

The bulk of the story describes various cases that the group took on while Sotomayor was involved with it, which is interesting enough. But making a case for the importance of the story (justifying its inclusion on Page 1?), writers Raymond Hernandez and David W. Chen write:

Ms. Sotomayor’s involvement with the defense fund has so far received scant attention. But her critics, including some Republican senators who will vote on her nomination, have questioned whether she has let her ethnicity, life experiences and public advocacy creep into her decisions as a judge. It seems inevitable, then, that her tenure with the defense fund will be scrutinized during her confirmation hearings.

Now, if you take a look at Sotomayor’s actual judicial record, one thing that leaps out is that she frequently comes down in rulings against the side that she would presumably sympathize with politically–for the “global gag rule”, a racist cop and tobacco companies, for instance, and against a disabled black woman and African-American air travellers. Either Sotomayor does have the ability to put aside her personal opinions when making a judgment, in other words, or she’s a good deal more right-wing than most people believe.

But the lengthy article never allows anyone to make the case that Sotomayor does not, in fact, “let her ethnicity…creep into her decisions as a judge.” Instead, after describing her involvement with the PRLDEF, Hernandez and Chen describe a single judicial case that Sotomayor ruled on–Ricci, in which she was one of three appeals court judges that upheld a ruling against a white firefighter’s discrimination claim–and then concludes by quoting a right-wing judicial activist:

Mr. Levey said that the employment discrimination case filed by the defense fund on behalf of Hispanic police officers raised questions about Judge Sotomayor’s credibility in the New Haven case. “It adds to the conviction that this was not accidental, and that she had a very specific agenda here.”

In short, the New York Times frames its look at Sotomayor’s involvement in Puerto Rican legal affairs as a question of whether such involvement will make her a bad judge, and it allows no one to offer the case to the contrary. Is that accidental–or does the Times have a very specific agenda here?

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.