In the shadow of war, the Jackson hearings seem like political theater

The Jackson hearings are not generating a lot of excitement

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On nearly every home page I went to yesterday morning, from the New York Times to the Huffington Post, the Ketanji Brown Jackson hearings were well down the page, below 21 other stories in the case of Drudge.

CNN and Fox blew off most live coverage of the second day of the judge’s questioning.

And on some level I get it. Jackson is going to be confirmed, which won’t change the high court’s 6-3 conservative majority. Some of the Republican questioning had more to do with political grievances than issues before the Court, and at times the nominee was almost reduced to a bystander during their speechifying. The hearings grew tedious and repetitive, drenched in legal jargon.

At the same time, the world’s attention is riveted on the mounting atrocities in Ukraine, the unconscionable attacks on civilians, and whether Vladimir Putin and NATO are on a collision course over the unprovoked war. Nobody knows what the outcome will be, yet the fallout for America and Europe will be profound. 

Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 23, 2022, during her confirmation hearing. 

Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 23, 2022, during her confirmation hearing.  (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

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But it’s not just Ukraine. There’s an increasing focus on COVID-19 as yet another highly contagious subvariant is starting to surge in this country, and the latest to test positive include Jen Psaki, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

If there was no war and no pandemic, the story of the first Black woman named to the Supreme Court would dominate our political discourse. But that’s not the world we live in right now.

The media have turned deadly serious when it comes to the brutal invasion of Ukraine, abandoning the hype and sensationalism and manufactured controversies that usually pervade their coverage. It turns out that’s true on social media, as well.

The Atlantic, relying on an online data firm, says engagement sharply shifted:

"The fights that tend to dominate online debate—such as the ones over COVID policies, school curriculums, and trans athletes—suddenly went quiet." 

Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson testifies during her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 23, 2022. 

Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson testifies during her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 23, 2022.  (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

This wasn’t because activists weren’t pounding away at their favorite targets, but because fewer people were paying attention.

"As a shooting war started, average users sought out experts and reputable news organizations. Google Trends, for example, showed a relative increase in searches for nuclear weapons and potassium iodidea treatment used after radiation in emergencies—while searches for Ukraine were at an all-time high. The culture war temporarily faded into the background."

And that is a welcome relief. People chose hard news over hot buttons. There was a groundswell of support for the embattled Ukrainians.

Inevitably, it didn’t last. Within a few days, there were more discussions of Jussie Smollett and firing Anthony Fauci sharing mindspace with the war in Europe.

As for the Jackson hearings, there are reasons beyond Ukraine that they’re not generating a lot of excitement.

Republican senators have every right to interrogate her about law and policy, as Democrats have done during GOP administrations, but some of the lawmakers have seemed mired in the past. 

Lindsey Graham just plain looked bad when he asked Jackson how committed she is to her faith, on a scale of 1 to 10. Yes, he was trying to make a point about Dianne Feinstein’s outrageous comment about Amy Coney Barrett’s Catholicism, but what does that have to do with Jackson? The same goes for Democrats having filibustered a Black woman named to the D.C. appeals court by George W. Bush, and eventually confirmed.

Tom Tillis asked why Jackson made a statement at the beginning of the pandemic that all D.C. inmates should be released. She said it was the background of an order in which, two sentences later, she refused to release a heroin trafficker. 

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Josh Hawley was respectful in challenging Jackson’s sentencing of people who possess child porn, but even some conservatives say his argument is misleading to the point of unfairness.

John Cornyn still seems upset that the high court legalized same-sex marriage seven years ago. Mike Braun told reporters he opposes the 1967 court ruling that legalized interracial marriage, before walking it back. 

Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson arrives for the third day of her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, in Washington, Wednesday, March 23, 2022.

Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson arrives for the third day of her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, in Washington, Wednesday, March 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Jackson’s insistence on narrow, lawyerly answers, while hardly unique, has also been stultifying. She’s been widely mocked on the right for responding to Marsha Blackburn’s request to define "woman" by saying "I’m not a biologist." But everyone knows Jackson was trying to avoid a barrage of followup questions on transgender rights and whether trans women should be allowed to compete against other women in sports.

All this amounts to Beltway game-playing–albeit milder than the Kavanaugh craziness–and that tends to be of greater interest to political and media insiders.

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For what it’s worth, a Gallup survey gives Jackson a 58 percent approval rating–the highest of any SCOTUS nominee since John Roberts drew 59 percent back in 2005.

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Little wonder that the Ukraine calamity is drawing far more attention from people who produce and consume news.