Omitting Words, NPR Portrays a Conservative Court Watcher As a Clarence Thomas Hater

Creative editing of direct quotations often lands journalists in trouble – for good reason.

The ellipsis, usually shown in print as a series of three dots ( … ) between words, is an important tool for the journalist. It signifies that words have been omitted. Without ellipses, extended quotations would drag on, weighted down with information irrelevant to the story at hand. The ellipsis allows the writer to leave in the important words and banish the unimportant ones.

Failing to use an ellipsis when it is called for is misleading at best and dishonest at worst, but that’s exactly what National Public Radio did in a report that makes a conservative legal commentator look bad.

Curt Levey, executive director of the right-leaning Committee for Justice, discussed the nomination of Goodwin Liu, a radical Berkeley law professor with some very unusual ideas about the law.


In case you haven’t been following it, President Obama has nominated Liu to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The reason pundits the nation over are paying close attention to the nomination is because they believe President Obama is grooming Liu as a future Supreme Court nominee.

If hostility to the Constitution were a prerequisite for the federal bench, the radical leftist Liu would be a shoo-in. Liu has said with a straight face that “free enterprise,” “private ownership of property,” and “limited government” are “code words for an ideological agenda hostile to environmental, workplace, and consumer protections.” Liu’s sentiments are reminiscent of deposed Ways and Means Committee chairman Charlie Rangel’s (D-N.Y.) infamous rant that tax-cutting is Republican code for racism.

In an April 16 story by NPR’s Nina Totenberg an audio clip was used of Levey saying:

Goodwin Liu is not your typical liberal. He’s very far out on the left wing, even in academia. So I think you could think of Liu as the Democratic Clarence Thomas.


The problem is that that’s not all Levey said. Here’s the full quotation that he provided me (the words used by NPR are in block capitals):

Everybody expected Obama to nominate liberals to the federal courts, and that’s what he’s done, but GOODWIN LIU IS NOT YOUR TYPICAL LIBERAL. HE’S VERY FAR OUT ON THE LEFT-WING, EVEN OF ACADEMIA. He is an unabashed defender, really advocate, of judicial activism, and add on top of that, the fact that I think everyone knows that Obama would love to groom him for a spot on the Supreme Court. Obama would love to, you know, be able to say that he nominated the first Asian to the Supreme Court. As you know, it’s been almost forty years since somebody who was not a judge was appointed to the Supreme Court. SO I THINK THAT YOU CAN THINK OF GOODWIN LIU AS THE DEMOCRATIC CLARENCE THOMAS. I think everyone knows that he’s being groomed to be on the Supreme Court, and you know, that scares people because he’s to the left of even Justice Ginsburg.

In an interview, Levey told me all he was trying to say was that Goodwin Liu and Justice Thomas are comparable only in the sense that both were nominated to lower federal courts by presidents who were considered to be grooming them for the Supreme Court. (Before joining the Supreme Court in 1991, Thomas served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.)

That’s it.

But removed from the full context the quotation reads like Levey is going along with liberal conventional wisdom that Clarence Thomas is a right-wing extremist. Says Levey:

Thomas’s liberal detractors like to characterize him as extreme and would love to hear such a description coming from a conservative Supreme Court observer like me. But it’s an inaccurate characterization and it’s not what I said or believe. Thomas is committed to interpreting the Constitution according to its plain meaning and original intent. If that’s extreme, then so were the Founding Fathers who wrote the Constitution.

It does seem strange in a segment about far-out liberal nominee Liu that the conservative Levey would use the opportunity to attack one of his personal heroes, Clarence Thomas, doesn’t it? Thomas is a conservative judicial icon whose bruising nomination battle in 1991 quite literally inspired a generation of conservative activists. The left hates him because he’s a black man who refuses to toe the liberal line.

So how did Levey’s words get so twisted out of shape?

Nina Totenberg

It’s unclear how exactly it happened but Totenberg’s NPR story is a textbook example of how sloppy or overzealous editing can distort the meaning of a source’s words.

Totenberg, long a fixture of the left-wing journalistic establishment in Washington -President Obama nominated her sister Amy to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia– is so thoroughly liberal it might not even occur to her that Levey’s words could mean anything other than Clarence Thomas is a radical kook.

After all, it was Totenberg’s reporting that gave birth to the brutal Supreme Court confirmation process that Thomas denounced as “a high tech lynching.”

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In 1991 when Thomas’s confirmation by the U.S. Senate seemed assured, Totenberg emerged as a key enabler for the left. Left-wingers on the Senate Judiciary Committee knew they could count on Totenberg to hype a leaked confidential statement from Anita Hill, the now-discredited leftist law professor who made up a sexual harassment story in an almost-successful effort to bring Thomas down.

The can of worms that Totenberg opened almost derailed the nomination. The confirmation hearing was re-opened and Thomas was barely confirmed by the Senate on a vote of 52 to 48.


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