Last week, Walter Dellinger referred to Hamdan v. Rumsfeld as “the most important decision on presidential power and the rule of law ever.” Mark Graber offered some cold water, arguing that it was too early to gauge Hamdan’s importance. It’s “the sort of decision that is likely to depend a great deal on the future course of American politics,” said Graber. Well, it’s been a week. The future is now. It’s time to take stock.
So how is Hamdan doing in the broader world of American politics? The New York Times liked it. The Wall Street Journal didn’t. Of course, we like to be more systematic here at the ELS Blog, but this means I’ll have to focus on only one small part of the political discussion. Here, I’ll consider only newspaper editorial boards and what they thought of Hamdan, but I’ll go beyond just the elite national papers. The punchline is that they overwhelmingly supported the Supreme Court’s decision, which is probably unsurprising, but even right-leaning papers favored the Court over the President by a substantial margin.
Here is where the numbers come from: I started with the Audit Bureau of Circulations’ March 31, 2006 list of the top U.S. newspapers, focusing on the top 100. Because several newspapers have joint operating agreements and are treated as a single unit for circulation purposes, the top 100 actually includes 107 newspapers. I looked at all 107.
All but a few of these newspapers make their most recent
content freely available on their website. I checked each paper for an
editorial published from Friday, June 30th to Wednesday, July 12th, looking only for editorials presented as the opinions of the editorial boards. I did not look at anything else on the op-ed pages, whether by local
columnists, syndicated columnists, or even individual members of the editorial
boards speaking for themselves. Older editorials about the case and editorials from yesterday and today, if there are any, are not included.
In these 107 papers, I found 92 editorials over this period. This number struck me as high, but I don’t have any comparable numbers available for other cases. Indeed, one motivation for looking at these editorials was my curiosity about how extensively a case like Hamdan would be discussed on the nation’s editorial pages, especially once one goes beyond the major national papers. (I would be interested in similar data for Kelo.)
For the most part, classifying these editorials as basically supporting the Court’s or the President’s position was very easy. Naturally, a small number of editorials were more difficult to classify. I elaborate on a few methodological details in a note at the end of this post.
The editorials supported the Supreme Court by a wide margin: 79 of the 92 editorials (85.9%) supported the Court’s decision. Only 9 editorials (9.8%) supported Bush’s position in the case. Among the papers in the minority were the Wall Street Journal, the New York Daily News, the New York Post, and the Detroit News. Four of the 92 editorials were not clear enough to classify either way, so I classified them as ambiguous/unclear. The combined circulation of the papers siding with the Court and the President were roughly 27,806,070 and 5,000,790, respectively. (For papers with joint circulation totals, I allocated half of the total to each paper.)
According to Edward Whelan, President of the Ethics and
My check on whether these editorial boards lean left or
right is based on which candidate they endorsed in the 2004 presidential election.
Of the 107 newspapers, 57 endorsed Kerry (53.3%), 39 endorsed Bush (36.4%), and
11 endorsed neither candidate (10.3%). Admittedly, this measure of newspaper ideology is imperfect
because it says nothing about the 11 papers that failed to endorse a candidate,
but at least it covers nearly 90% of the papers. About 89.5% of the Kerry
papers and 76.9% of the Bush 2004 papers editorialized about
As can be seen in Table 1, the results only partly break down along partisan or ideological lines. The row headings indicate who the newspapers endorsed in 2004. The column headings indicate how the editorial boards responded to Hamdan. All but one of the Kerry papers supported the Court’s decision, leaving an outlier that was ambiguous in its support. But not all of the papers supporting Bush in 2004 supported Bush in Hamdan. Of the 30 papers that supported Bush in the election and published an editorial on Hamdan, 22 supported the Court. That’s 73.3% in favor of the Court, even in the right-leaning papers.
In sum, a majority of the top newspapers in the country have had something to say about Hamdan. Left-leaning papers were more likely to comment, and while the Supreme Court did exceedingly well with these papers, it also did quite well with the right-leaning papers. Of course, it has only been a week, not all of the papers have weighed in on the case, and the nation’s editors are only a small part of the political discussion. What the politicians do will be more important, and as Mark Graber suggested, it will be a while before we can really evaluate Hamdan’s impact. We probably need at least another week.
Note: For each editorial, there were two questions, one being whether to count it and the other being how to count it. I considered dropping the Arizona Republic and the Syracuse Post-Standard editorials because they were not primarily about Hamdan, but they commented on the decision, so I decided to keep them—though I classified the Arizona Republic editorial as ambiguous/unclear. La Opinion’s editorial was more challenging because it was not in English, but I asked someone fluent in Spanish to double-check my interpretation. (The editorial’s title was “Una Victoria del sistema legal.” Not too hard to figure out where it was going.) And the Wichita Eagle barely went beyond being purely descriptive in its short editorial, but I ultimately decided the last sentence put it in the Court’s corner. Reasonable people could disagree.
To determine each paper’s endorsement (or lack thereof) in 2004, I relied primarily on Eric Appleman’s Democracy in Action website.
UPDATE: The text above reflects several changes. First, I changed the Fresno Bee from endorsing no one in 2004 to endorsing Kerry. The dKosopedia website reported the Bee endorsed Kerry, but the Appleman site had no listing. I e-mailed an editor for the Bee, and he confirmed that it did endorse Kerry. Second, I corrected the entry for the Capital Times, which supported the Court’s decision in Hamdan. Originally, I classified it as not editorializing on the case. Third, I went beyond the original July 5th cut-off for editorials and checked for editorials up through July 12th, which added a few more editorials. These changes required updating the numbers.