"We've seen media attention to the court like this only once before," says Eric Alterman, distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, "and that was in 2000, during Bush v. Gore.
"But this is even bigger," Alterman says. "There's just more people here, more reporters, more media, all competing. It's the media equivalent of nuclear war."
Several dramas are playing at once in Washington. In the court itself, with somber, almost scholarly calm, lawyers present arguments and justices ask questions. Outside the Supreme Court building, folks line up for gallery tickets. Protesters demonstrate for and against the act (and each other: NPR's Steve Inskeep quipped that their mantra was "Two-four-six-eight, find-something-that-rhymes-with-eight"). With unions, doctors' groups, the National Organization for Women, and seniors' advocates on one side, and self-described tea party patriots and conservatives on the other, the faceoff mirrors our agonized politics.
"What draws the media to a case like this is the political dimension," says Lyle Denniston, adviser on constitutional literacy at the National Constitution Center, calling from the press room at the Supreme Court. "Many cases are important, but give us an abortion case, a death-penalty case, or a good fight, and the media are right there."
In the press, and on TV networks, cable news, NPR, and the Web, we've been treated to the very best, and most, in coverage. Websites for Fox News, NPR, the New York Times, and other venues carry recorded audio of the entire proceedings. Nightly news shows on CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and elsewhere offer hours of analysis and speculation. Websites such as Politico, RealClearPolitics, and Huffington Post aggregate arguments and analysis. The NPR blogs "the Two-Way" and "Shots" offer breakdowns of the law, the health-care issues, and the likely impact of the justices' decision. On mike and in print, NPR's indefatigable legal-affairs vet, Nina Totenberg, is explaining up a storm.
For some folks, it's not enough. Mary Ellen Balchunis, professor of political science at La Salle University, says, "I'd like to see the court be even more transparent. I'm one who wants cameras, so we can watch."
The media profile of the court and its members began to change rapidly in the 1980s, with the contentious 1987 confirmation hearings for Robert Bork (later rejected in the Senate) and the incendiary, racially tinged 1991 hearings for Clarence Thomas. Throughout the 1990s, justices opened up, speaking in public more often. Thomas was again prominent in this trend, appearing on the cover of People magazine with wife Virginia Thomas in November 1991, shortly after his confirmation, in part to battle what the Thomases saw as a smear campaign. Nearly all the Supremes have been cover boys and girls since.
And the justices just get out more. "There was a time justices might give one public speech at the beginning of their tenure and one at their farewell," says Balchunis. "But that has really changed." Sandra Day O'Connor spoke in public quite a bit, as do Antonin Scalia, Stephen G. Breyer, and others.
"The justices are responding to a greater general openness in our society," says Denniston. "They sense they should get out and meet the people, at least in controlled forums."
The result: Amid an ultimately mysterious process, many folks probably think they know these judges as people. In a limited fashion, the 24/7 news cycle has turned them into celebrities, albeit with more dignity than, say, Snooki. ("I don't think you'll see them on Jon Stewart or Colbert," says Balchunis.)
Stephanos Bibas, professor of law and criminology at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, clerked for Justice Anthony Kennedy and has argued before the high court. He says, "It's wonderful that the nation is paying attention, and that people are taking this bill seriously. But it's very hard to boil this law down to the sound bites the public seems to want."
Denniston, too, calls the media attention wide rather than deep: "The issues, aside from the mandate, are so complex you won't find many outlets giving them much coverage."
If we want to get smarter, where do we go? Denniston recommends Kaiser Health News (www.kaiserhealthnews.org), "the best at sorting out the issues and consequences." Bibas recommends "the detailed summaries at SCOTUSblog.com [www.scotusblog.com]. That's the best way to get an insight to what the lawyers are actually arguing." (Denniston is a writer for SCOTUSblog.)
As for the outcome, Alterman says, "Everyone knows they'll dress up their decisions in precedent and scholarship, but in the end they'll give us what they've already pre-decided."
But Bibas warns against seeing the justices as merely elevated mouthpieces for entrenched political views: "Anyone who tells you how the court, or individual judges, will rule is just plain wrong. You might think you can be sure Thomas and the conservative judges won't like the law, and the four Democratic appointees will. But there is so much that is so complex, you really can't predict.
"After all the media attention, after all is said and done," he says, "they'll do their own reading, and make their own decisions."
Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @jtimpane.