“If it rings true, it is true.”—Michael Wolff
Holy postmodernism, Bat Reader, we’ve got a live one here! A real live story that sounds veritably alive. It’s got all the trappings of good DC palace intrigue: heroes (Democrats), villains (Republicans), victims (also Democrats), a callous and uncaring worldview that puts innocent lives in danger (conservative ideals).
And the last dramatic ingredient: the mise-en-scène of a powerful centuries-old institution in the throes of modern political trivialities. Move over, Le Diplomate eavesdropping, we have a COVID kerfuffle in the marble chambers of our highest court!
Our dishy diegesis begins thusly: the Supreme Court is hearing arguments for the final cases on its yearly slate. But not all of our legal clerics have their black-cloaked tushes on the tribunal bench. One of them just has to stand out. And, natch, it’s the one fed-law referee who takes great pride in all matters racial, sexual, and identity.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor is refusing to join her peers in adjudicating such twisty legal matters as the correct ownership of a Pissarro cityscape expropriated by Nazis. Why? Rumor has it another justice refused to smother his maw after, presumably, getting his Moderna tri-shot and seeing it as unnecessary.
NPR’s Nina Totenberg reports that Sotomayor is Zooming in to oral arguments because she’s afraid of collateral spittle emanating from Justice Neil Gorsuch’s pie hole. The insolent Gorsuch declined to don a mask, despite an entreaty from Chief Nebbish John Roberts. In the Court’s bimah hierarchy, Soto and Gorso sit cloak to cloak. The intimate judicial propinquity made Sotomayor uneasy given her diabetes, which ups the chance of COVID complications. She’s also—hmmm… how to put this delicately so I don’t get cancelled or pelted with rotten vegetables when I leave my house?—on the jollier side of life with a bit more adipose tissue than the average jurist. This physique also leaves her susceptible to the virus’s worst effects—which was a crankish conspiracy until the exact moment the CDC announced it wasn’t three weeks ago. Because capital-s Science.
So there you have it: the pieces are set precisely to act out a perfect Washington narrative. An intransigent, selfish Republican is putting a medically vulnerable racial minority in danger! A man is brashly bullying a professional glass-ceiling shatterer! Quick, call up Aaron Sorkin. We have a civic blockbuster on our hands! Dig up the corpse of Alan Rickman to play Gorsuch. Grab Maddie Ziegler, fresh off Spielberg’s flop “West Side Story,” and give her an EpiPen and a bodysuit. This thing could make Spider-Man numbers!
There’s only one potential hang-up. The “based on a true story” disclaimer may be such a stretch it snaps, rubber-banding back and cracking Sorkin’s trendy tea shades.
Totenberg’s taut story was immediately disputed by Fox News compère Shannon Bream. On her evening broadcast, Bream contra-reported, “there has been no blanket admonition or request from Chief Justice Roberts that the other justices begin wearing masks to arguments.” So Gorsuch wasn’t defying orders, ei opso Sotomayor has no *ahem* standing to protest his unveiled mouth.
Oh, but there are even more plot holes packed into this fanfiction. In a rare bit of bipartisan comity, Gorsuch and Sotomayor put out a joint statement that simultaneously repudiated any mutual acrimony while also dispelling a non sequitur. The SCOTUS-stamped communiqué: “Reporting that Justice Sotomayor asked Justice Gorsuch to wear a mask surprised us. It is false. While we may sometimes disagree about the law, we are warm colleagues and friends.”
This is turning into more Kafka than “The West Wing.” Totenberg didn’t claim Sotomayor asked Gorsuch to muzzle up. The justices are disputing non-news, yet insisting all is well, no professional courtesies violated. But the plot falls out completely with another retort. John Roberts released his own clarification: “I did not request Justice Gorsuch or any other Justice to wear a mask on the bench.”
Game, set, and match, right? Supreme Court, three; NPR, goose eggs. And quite a twist to end on! The villain, it turns out, wasn’t the libertarian-lite justice, but the corporate media, eager to use one liberal justice’s malady to tarnish her Republican colleague.
Oh, but we’re not through yet. Despite debunking from all principals in our tale, a small band of resistance journos are trying to shore up the myth. Elie Mystal of The Nation suggests Roberts isn’t to be believed; CNN’s Brian Fallon insists on the original telling, arguing that Sotomayor was just being “kind” in collaborating on the joint denial; Totenberg’s fellow NPR pencil-sharpener David Gura chastised other reports for “passing along a statement from two justices that is at best false without any context whatsoever.”
Totenberg isn’t staying mum either. After NPR public editor Kelly McBride requested a clarification on the original report, Totenberg blew her top, telling The Daily Beast, “[McBride] can write any goddamn thing she wants, whether or not I think it’s true.”
So who are you going to believe? These credentialed professionals or your lying eyes?
I’ll be the first to admit that I was more than ready to endorse the yarn spun by our J-school mythologists. It was just so buzzy and brimming with personality. A put-upon liberal icon still fighting old bigotries; an albino-haired stickler for the law who insists upon the autonomy to do as he pleases. Of course, my heart was with Gorsuch turning Darius Rucker and crooning “Let Her Cry” in the Supreme Court cafeteria. The mask-forever regime should have fallen six months ago. Gorsuch dismissing the hypochondriactic ravings of his affirmative action colleague would be some BASED lib-owning.
Oh, well. Maybe next time he can tell Sotomayor to stick her sob story in the Constitution’s penumbras and strap on a few more N95s if she feels uncomfortable.
Regardless, the above demonstrates the way news circularizes first around the capital, then around the country. Built on hearsay, conjecture, and simplistic, paint-by-number assumptions, these incidents are continually woven into the greater plot of leftist political figures saving the republic from the dark forces of the right. And even when the narrative tapestry gets caught on a nail and starts to unravel, the dutiful needle pushers try to weave a new story with the same blue-good, red-evil elements.
Mythmaking, of course, isn’t reporting. It’s lazy story-time for Facebook scrollers who think posting the “angry face” emoji is more of an act of civic engagement than reading the bond initiatives they don’t bother voting on in by-elections. Even our illustrious, publicly funded radio firm isn’t above framing the news to make it more palatable to its left-leaning audience.
Somewhere, an NPR tote bag full of soiled hygienic masks lies festering in a sewer drain.