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A Harrowing Hour Of Television: 'Frontline’ Exposes How the Scales of Justice Tipped to the Right on the U.S. Supreme Court
May 21, 2019  | By Alex Strachan  | 3 comments
 

Supreme Revenge, veteran PBS Frontline correspondent Michael Kirk’s detailed exposé of the behind-the-scenes politics that have driven recent US Supreme Court appointments, is jam-packed with facts and figures, but one number stands out.

On average, a single Supreme Court appointee— a lifetime appointment, remember — will survive the equivalent of six presidential terms.

That’s why last summer’s announcement of conservative-leaning Brett Kavanaugh (left) as the most recent Associate Justice of the Supreme Court is so significant, not just for American citizens today but for generations to come.

Kavanaugh was confirmed in October, little more than a year after another Donald Trump nominee, Neil Gorsuch, was confirmed in April 2017.

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s public hearings into Kavanaugh’s confirmation made for merry and amusing light entertainment for the cable news channels, who covered the hearings no differently than they would a reunion episode of The Bachelorette. He drinks beer! He likes beer! He still drinks beer! Did you catch that moment? It was hard not to.

The merriment spilled over into the late-night comedy shows, and everyone had a good laugh.

Everyone, that is, except Christine Blasey Ford ([left] I’m not going to go over old ground here; Frontline does that well enough, and if you don’t know who Dr. Ford is, she’s easy enough to look up), policy wonks and stakeholders who understand the long-term ramifications of Supreme Court appointments, and  journalists like Michael Kirk who understand that what’s behind the story is often more meaningful, and hard to get at, than the cavalcade of circus performers who pass by on America’s TV screens in real time.

The cable news channels have their place. Basically, they’re there to entertain the audience and try to find fun where they can.

Increasingly, these days, it’s down to no-fun news programs like PBS Frontline to tell people what they need to know, not what they want to hear.

In correspondent Kirk’s capable hands, coupled with an exhaustive eye for detail and a genuine curiosity about the “why” behind a story, and not just the “who,” “what,” “when” and “where” of who said what and when, Supreme Revenge is a tale as complex and yet easy-to-follow as any John Grisham potboiler, but with deeper meaning.

This is a frightening, densely layered tale that makes for a singularly harrowing hour of television.

Political consultant Frank Luntz, interviewed in the program, likens the process of recent Supreme Court appointments to “the politics of destruction.” Republican strategist Steve Bannon — yes, that Steve Bannon —  tells Frontline that Trump would not have been elected without the support of the conservative think tank the Federalist Society, which was formed after the Democrats’ scorched-earth tactics sank Ronald Reagan’s nomination of the conservative-leaning judge and legal scholar Robert Bork in 1987.

That may have been more than 30 years ago, but in order to win the Federalist Society’s backing, Bannon says Trump had to agree to an approved list of Supreme Court candidates, or if not agree exactly, not disagree.

The 1987 version of Mitch McConnell, then the junior senator from Kentucky who voted in a losing cause for Bork’s confirmation, never forgot. This, Frontline explains, is why McConnell (bottom) has been so focused on his pursuit of the conservative agenda all these decades. Single-minded to a fault. The Republican elephant never forgets.

As Supreme Revenge points out, the Republicans staged a trial run of scorched-earth tactics of their own in 1991, after then-President George H.W. Bush nominated Judge Clarence Thomas (right) to the Supreme Court, following the retirement of Thurgood Marshall.

In that year’s public hearings, senators dismissed the testimony of law-school professor Anita Hill, who had accused Thomas of making unwelcome sexual advances when the two worked together at the US Dept. of Education, as little more than a political smear designed to derail Thomas’ nomination.

It proved to be an eerie foreshadowing of the treatment Christine Ford would face at Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings 28 years later.

This may all sound a little too detailed and dense for an hour-long exposé intended to shine a light on an opaque political process of picking judges, but, happily, Supreme Revenge is easy to follow. Kirk connects the dots and does a masterful job. Yes, Frontline is on PBS, and so is unlikely to appeal to the Fox News audience — Trump’s base, and a bastion of the pro-life movement — but it’s important to know just the same.

What Frontline does so well, that the cable news channels ignore at their peril, is state the case for knowledge and information. An educated public is the key to a successful democracy. History matters. Perspective matters. Appointments to the most influential and important bench in the land don’t happen in a vacuum. Knowledge counts for everything.

The process is not much different than it has ever been. The difference today, Supreme Revenge points out —and it’s a critical difference — is that the process has never been this politicized. In a constitutional democracy that prides itself on the separation of church and state, the lines between faith and reason have never been more blurred than they are right now. The events of the past week — first Georgia, then Alabama, and now Missouri — prove that.

Once again, PBS Frontline is must-see TV. It may not be The Bachelorette Reunion, but it has a lot to say just the same. And what it has to say matters.

PBS Frontline: Supreme Revenge airs Tuesday on PBS at 10 p.m. ET. Check your local listings.

 
 
 
 
 
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3 Comments
 
 
Zeke
The review indicates that it covers "how the sausage is made" in SCOTUS appointments. Part of me wishes I could hold on to my Idealism, but I agree, the better informed the better a citizen. (and I trust FrontLine)
I will watch, though I may require ice cream to soothe me.
May 21, 2019   |  Reply
 
 
Zeke
I quote the article:
" Yes, Frontline is on PBS, and so is unlikely to appeal to the Fox News audience — Trump’s base, and a bastion of the pro-life movement — but it’s important to know just the same."
May 21, 2019   |  Reply
 
 
Owsald
Commenting as a pro choice Trump supporting conservative who watches both PBS and Fox News, the article writer's bias is predictably objectionable.
May 21, 2019   |  Reply
 
Angela
Sean, "they just don't like the outcome?" Are you referring to when the Democrats’ used scorched-earth tactics or when the Republicans' did because they both didn't like the outcome.
May 22, 2019
 
 
Sean Dougherty
So the documentary is about how the process is the same they just don't like the outcome?
May 21, 2019
 
 
 
 
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