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Knight Ridder's Alito story: Factual and fair

WASHINGTON—On Dec. 1, Knight Ridder's Washington bureau sent a story analyzing the record of Judge Samuel Alito to our 32 daily newspapers and to the more than 300 papers that subscribe to the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service. Written by Stephen Henderson, Knight Ridder's Supreme Court correspondent, and Howard Mintz of the San Jose Mercury News, the story began:

"During his 15 years on the federal bench, Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito has worked quietly but resolutely to weave a conservative legal agenda into the fabric of the nation's laws."

Assisted by Washington bureau researcher Tish Wells, Henderson and Mintz spent nearly a month reading all of Alito's 311 published opinions, which are available in a commercial database or in the archives of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, where Alito has sat for 15 years.

Henderson and Mintz cataloged the cases by category—employment discrimination, criminal justice, immigration and so on—and analyzed each one with help from attorneys who participated on both sides of the cases and experts in those fields of law. They interviewed legal scholars and other judges, many of them admirers of Alito.

They concluded that, "although Alito's opinions are rarely written with obvious ideology, he's seldom sided with a criminal defendant, a foreign national facing deportation, an employee alleging discrimination or consumers suing big business."

You might find this neither surprising nor controversial. Alito, after all, was nominated by a president who said that his ideal Supreme Court justices were Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, the high court's most reliably conservative members.

You'd be wrong.

Within days, the Senate Republican Conference circulated a lengthy memo headlined, "Knight Ridder Misrepresents Judge Alito's 15-year record."

Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a leader in the Alito confirmation process, sent a letter to the editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, a Knight Ridder paper, denouncing the story as "neither objective nor accurate." The Inquirer published it on Dec. 7.

The White House offered an opinion piece by Jeffrey N. Wasserstein, a former Alito law clerk who identified himself as a Democrat and said his former boss "is capable of setting aside any personal biases he may have when he judges." Knight Ridder/Tribune distributed it to all of our papers and its subscribers on Dec. 11.

A conservative columnist, whose glowing tribute to Alito is now featured in television advertisements supporting the nominee, declared the Knight Ridder story "illiterate."

We responded to some of the criticism at the time. For example, some critics cited Alito's votes in cases in which he voted without explanation with other judges for the plaintiffs in employment discrimination cases or with criminal defendants.

Knight Ridder's story analyzed only Alito's published opinions because what a judge writes from the bench is the best window into his or her legal reasoning. A judge's unexplained votes are often on procedural grounds that have nothing to do with legal philosophy. And the Knight Ridder story didn't say that Alito never sided with plaintiffs who alleged employment discrimination, criminal defendants or consumers suing businesses. It reported accurately that he seldom did, and that the pattern of his written opinions was unmistakable.

The controversy erupted again this week at Alito's confirmation hearings. After Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., referred to the Knight Ridder story, Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., introduced a critique of the story by the Republican staff of the Judiciary Committee into the record of the hearings. Kyl said the story, "has, to my understanding, been rather completely discredited." The first paragraph of the Republican critique, however, said the story was based on "dozens" of Alito's opinions, creating the false impression that Henderson and Mintz didn't examine the judge's entire body of published work.

The Republican National Committee circulated a blistering personal attack on Henderson to some reporters, taking quotes out of context in an attempt to portray him as biased.

The RNC said Henderson "admitted he was previously an editorial writer," as though that very public part of a distinguished reporter's career was a secret that he'd been trying to hide. The RNC statement then linked Henderson to editorials he didn't write.

This hysteria over a carefully researched article that documents the obvious—that Samuel Alito is a judicial conservative—is the latest example of a disturbing trend of attacking the messenger instead of debating difficult issues.

Fact-based reporting is the lifeblood of a democracy. It gives people shared information on which to make political choices. But as people in new democracies risk their lives to gather such information, in this country fact-based reporting is under more relentless assault than at any time in my more than 40 years in Washington.

On the radio, on the Internet, on cable television and in print, partisans on both sides attack any news reporting that fails to advance their agendas or confirm their biases. Zealous partisans in both major parties have adopted a "with us or against us" attitude. It's not only unhealthy but also, I believe, dangerous.

Our job is to be neither with them nor against them. It's to find out the facts, as best we can, and to report them as fully, fairly and accurately as we can.

I invite you to reach your own conclusion about Knight Ridder's Alito story. You can read it—and some of the Republican critiques— on our Web site, www.krwashington.com, by clicking on "Alito: Knight Ridder Washington's coverage" on the right side of the page.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Clary Hoyt is Knight Ridder's Washington editor. Readers may write to him at: Knight Ridder. 700 12th Street NW, Suite 1000, Washington, D.C. 20005; e-mail: choyt@krwashington.com).

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO of Clark Hoyt available from the ``Columnist Mugs'' section of KRT Direct.

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