Judicial scholars are accustomed to analyzing the U.S. Supreme Court's image and legitimacy. The primary objectives of analyses concerned with such issues are assessments of the public's understanding of these institutional attributes and the influence of these attributes on justices' decision making. Given the nature of these topics and the difficulties involved in quantifying related variables, scholars often reach speculative conclusions based on anecdotal evidence, frequently drawn from specific illustrative cases or justices' off-bench comments.
Richard Davis enters this research arena by examining the news media's dual role in communicating the Supreme Court's image and decisions to the public and in providing feedback that the justices may use to shape their actions and decisions. Davis does not avoid engaging in speculative analysis and he concedes as much in discussing the justices' motives and actions (p. 116). Thus he opens himself to potential criticism from those whose acceptance of arguments and conclusions requires empirical evidence that meets specified standards. However, Davis has done an unassailably impressive job of providing new details about the interactions between Supreme Court justices and reporters, and the objectives, methods, and insights of the reporters who cover the Supreme Court beat.
Davis obviously had enviable access to the Supreme Court press corps and the Court's public information office. Although he interviewed a relatively small number of people (20), he was examining the context of a small press corps in which his interviewees were the very people who shape the news stories about the Court, and whose role and importance have been neglected by scholars in the past. Davis also conducted a survey of the Supreme Court press corps, observed the reporters and the Court's public information officials at work, and culled the private papers of departed justices for memoranda and letters related to the Court's interaction with the press. By pulling together these varied sources, Davis presents a rich, detailed picture of news media operations at the Supreme Court.
The book is weakest in the author's general discussion of the Court's public image. For example, Davis states, without providing supporting evidence from public opinion polls, that "Mass demonstrations and mail campaigns reinforce the image of the Court as a political institution vulnerable to political pressure" (p. 26). The author's phrasing seems to indicate that he simply adopted and repeated the lamentation from Justice Scalia's concurring opinion in WEBSTER V. REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH SERVICES (1989) -- which Davis subsequently quotes on the same page. This type of weakness apparently stems from two sources. First, the book's primary focus and unique contribution to academic literature concern the details of the Supreme Court's press operations. Second, the overall brevity of the book (193 pages) and the general, conclusory writing style evident in some parts of the book appear aimed at making the
Page 184 follows:
volume attractive as a supplementary text in college classes. While DECISIONS AND IMAGES has the potential to be a very interesting and valuable book for teaching purposes (e.g., its appendix contains sample press releases and memoranda from interest groups trying to influence the Court and public opinion), its generality in discussing larger issues presents little that is new to scholars.
A second, minor weakness that may attract the notice of some scholars is that the book is marred in a few spots by weak proofreading, especially with respect to the proper spellings of the last names of several recognizable authors.
The foregoing weaknesses are, however, outweighed by the author's significant contributions to knowledge about the operations of the Supreme Court press corps and public information office. One of the greatest virtues of the book -- and one that the author does not specifically note in his discussions -- is that judicial scholars have the opportunity to see, up close and personal, the people and processes that translate and disseminate information to those of us who write about the Supreme Court. For example, how many of us can honestly say that our understanding of the contemporary Supreme Court has not been shaped in some way by the reporting of Linda Greenhouse of the NEW YORK TIMES? Through the interview responses detailed by Davis, familiar names -- such as Linda Greenhouse, Tim O'Brien of ABC News, Lyle Denniston of the BALTIMORE SUN, and Toni House, the Court's Public Information Officer -- now become flesh-and-blood personalities whose values, purposes, and insights are available, at least in part, to the audience of scholars who utilize their work. Davis does not merely report on what he has been told by these Court insiders. Instead, he does a good job of integrating their responses into his discussion and analysis of such topics as choosing and preparing newsworthy stories, personal contacts between reporters and justices, and the functions of the Court's public information office.
Davis presents two theses at the start of the book. First, he posits that the Court "pursues specific objectives in its relationship with the press....[by] manipulat[ing]...the press relationship...to promote institutional power generally and its influence on specific policy issues" (p. xii). Second, he asserts that "each individual justice possesses objectives in press relations separate from those of the institution and that those are pursued through a variety of interactions with the press" (p. xii). With respect to the first thesis, the book's strength is in providing evidence and discussing the pursuit of the Court's objectives, rather than in advancing greater understanding of the nature of the Court's institutional power and influence on policy issues. With respect to the second issue, Davis can point to specific justices, especially Rehnquist and Scalia, as examples to illuminate his point, but he does not purport to provide a comprehensive examination of each justice. Indeed, Davis himself would note that several justices apparently pursue their objectives through a strategy of "non-pursuit" by minimizing contacts with the press.
The author's twin theses provide a political science orientation for his study and
Page 185 follows:
make this book a useful and important contribution to scholarly literature on the Court. Moreover, the author's analytical approach demonstrates quite clearly that Davis is a critical analyst who feels no obligation to tailor his conclusions to accommodate the feelings and perspectives of his cooperative subjects. However, the author's stated scholarly objectives as embodied in these two theses do not convey the complete range of the book's coverage and accomplishments. The book's examination of the details of the reporters' working lives and the influences which shape news stories about the Supreme Court will make DECISIONS AND IMAGES a valuable resource for judicial scholars, whether or not they are primarily interested in Davis's theses about the justices' motives and tactics.