It’s almost always news when a public official testifies before a congressional committee. Such was the case when Attorney General Merrick Garland faced the Senate Judiciary Committee.
As expected, it was an important, and often heated, four hours of testimony that was highlighted by the back-and-forth exchanges between Garland and Republican senators on the panel. You can read Garland’s opening remarks on the DOJ website.
Beyond his prepared remarks, there were plenty of potential storylines tied to religion that surfaced in the hearing. However, depending on which news organizations one follows, these storylines either made it into the news coverage or they were never mentioned.
The Garland hearing comes at a time of heightened polarization, something made worse by the Supreme Court decision that rolled back the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion. The aftermath of that decision has resulted in increased vandalism of Catholic churches, pro-life pregnancy centers and even a now-retracted FBI memo that targeted some traditional Catholics.
The content of the coverage of the questions asked and the contents of Garland’s responses depended on what reporters, editors and news organizations deemed important. This has been the case for decades, but the shift has changed dramatically in more recent years as news organizations divide themselves into political camps depending on the beliefs of their faithful audiences.
Did valid religion angles, especially those involving Catholics, make it into the coverage of national legacy media outlets?
Here is a hint: Prayers by protestors at abortion facilities appear to be considered much more dangerous, and thus newsworthy, than vandalism, or even arson, at Catholic churches and crisis pregnancy centers. News coverage of this Senate hearing seemed to have been produced by journalists living in parallel universes. Once again, this is the dominant news trend in the Internet age.
Here is the top of the New York Times report on the Garland hearing:
WASHINGTON — Republicans subjected Attorney General Merrick B. Garland to a four-hour grilling before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, a harbinger of the fights that loom ahead as the party targets the Justice Department in the months leading up to the 2024 election.
One by one, Republican senators accused Mr. Garland — testifying before Congress for the first time since appointing special counsels to investigate former President Donald J. Trump and President Biden — of politicizing the department by aggressively investigating Republicans and conservative activists while shielding Democrats.
They also rebuked Mr. Garland over a range of policy and law enforcement issues, including his response to the fentanyl and immigration crises as well as the court’s decision in June to end the constitutional right to an abortion.
But the most pointed exchange came in the final 20 minutes of the session, when most of the panel’s Democrats had left the room. He was left to field a volley of questions from Republicans about his actions in the investigations involving Mr. Trump as well as the inquiries into Mr. Biden and his son Hunter.
“You have one tier of justice for people that are conservatives and another for those that are on the left,” said Senator Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee.
Until then, lawmakers had mostly steered away from pressing about multiple investigations into top officials: an inquiry into Mr. Trump’s retention of sensitive government documents, the high-stakes examination of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, the investigation into Mr. Biden’s handling of government records, or the long-running federal inquiry into his son Hunter on possible weapons and tax transgressions.
In other words, the hearing focused primarily on political controversies.
There was no mention of any of the issues — often relegated to the Catholic press — regarding violence against churches and pro-life centers as related to the abortion issue. The only mention of the Supreme Court, and attempted violence against the conservative justices, were the final three paragraphs:
The tension broke briefly when Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, politely asked why Mr. Garland had not admonished Democrats who had denounced Supreme Court justices after their abortion ruling last year.
Mr. Garland, whose nomination to the court in 2016 was scuttled by Senate Republicans, did not offer a direct answer but gave a more sweeping assessment.
“I come from a kinder and gentler era — and a kinder and gentler court — even in terms of the way the members of the court treat themselves,” he said, an apparent reference to reports of squabbling among justices.
Interestingly, a disclaimer appeared midway through the news story that read this way:
How Times reporters cover politics. We rely on our journalists to be independent observers. So while Times staff members may vote, they are not allowed to endorse or campaign for candidates or political causes. This includes participating in marches or rallies in support of a movement or giving money to, or raising money for, any political candidate or election cause.
This may be true, but it doesn’t address bias that may occur in what is otherwise supposed to be an objective news story.
The story’s first few words — “Republicans subjected Attorney General Merrick B. Garland to a four-hour grilling” — signals how this story was framed. The attorney general wasn’t “subjected” to anything other than the accountability by the country’s top law-enforcement officer to questions posed to them by representatives elected by citizens.
It remains important for the Times to attempt to remain fair because of the newspaper’s rich past and decades of credibility. The Gray Lady plays a strategic role in shaping how powerful newsrooms view American life, especially politics and cultural issues. It’s clear that Fox News, for example, can’t fill that role given the scandal around its 2020 election commentaries and the libel lawsuit brought forth by Dominion Voting Systems.
Meanwhile, the Associated Press account of the hearing, one of the most important given how widely distributed it was, opened like this:
WASHINGTON (AP) — Attorney General Merrick Garland vowed Wednesday he won’t interfere with an investigation into Hunter Biden’s taxes, a probe that’s continuing to unfold as congressional Republicans intensify their focus on the president’s son.
Garland told the Senate Judiciary Committee he has left the matter in the hands of U.S. Attorney David Weiss, the top federal prosecutor in Delaware, who would be empowered to expand his investigation outside the state if needed.
“He has been advised he is not to be denied anything he needs,” Garland said. “I have not heard anything from that office to suggest that they are not able to do everything the U.S. Attorney wants to do.”
Garland’s appearance was his first since the new Congress convened, and came against the backdrop of special counsel investigations into classified records found at the homes of former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden.
The investigation into Hunter Biden began in 2018 and has included an examination of his income and payments he received while serving on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company whose board he had joined when his father was vice president, sparking potential conflict of interest concerns.
Like the Times news story, there was zero mention of protests and violence linked to churches, crisis pregnancy centers, etc. But the AP did focus on the Hunter Biden laptop, which had been a taboo subject during the 2020 presidential election.
What didn’t help is that the line of questioning involving Catholics, and that recent FBI memo, was spearheaded by Hawley, a senator who has put forth misleading statements regarding the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. It certainly doesn’t help that Hawley has little credibility to many, including Times editors, but that doesn’t mean that he isn’t correct asking Garland factual questions about the leaked FBI memo and related issues.
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