Daniel Sutter: An opportunity missed

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Pop quizzes in opinion columns are generally lame, but a quiz is sufficiently appropriate for today’s topic that I will risk it. The quiz has two questions. Here it goes:

Who has President Trump nominated to the Supreme Court?

Name one career-related fact about this nominee.

Last year I thought that Republicans might be blocking President Barack Obama’s nominee to replace the late Antonin Scalia, Merrick Garland, to give Donald Trump an opportunity to introduce Supreme Court Apprentice. Alas, President Trump declined to extend his Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice franchise to the high court and instead followed a conventional vetting process in selecting … Neil Gorsuch, a Harvard Law graduate and current U.S. Court of Appeals judge.

Initially I thought of Supreme Court Apprentice as a gag. But the show could significantly change the politics of Supreme Court nominations and help educate Americans.

Many Americans know little about the high court, as surveys consistently reveal. For instance, two thirds of Americans cannot name a single Supreme Court justice, and only about one percent can identify all of the justices. One survey found that one in ten respondents thought that TV’s Judge Judy Sheindlin was on the Supreme Court. About one third of Americans fail to identify the Court as one of our three branches of government.

Hardcore Democrats and Republicans follow Court nominations with great interest, but few others. This results in increasingly bitter fights over nominations as senators play to their core supporters. Thus Republicans refused to consider Mr. Garland’s nomination during an election year, while some Democrats talk about filibustering all Trump nominees. Furthermore, senators know that any constituents demanding that they vote for or against Mr. Gorsuch are party loyalists whose votes are not really in play.

Let’s imagine how a Supreme Court Apprentice season narrowing a dozen finalists down to the President’s nominee might change this. An audience of say 20 million viewers weekly would likely include many Americans unable to name any current Supreme Court justice. Instead of shooting down an anonymous Federal judge to please their political base, senators would be voting against a TV personality.

Indeed, the president might let viewers decide between the final two candidates, who he might view as equally qualified. Senators would then face the prospect of going against how thousands of their constituents voted for in the Apprentice finale. And the runner up from season one could be an early favorite for season two, when the next vacancy opens.

Attracting and retaining an audience would require producers devising entertaining and relevant tasks. Maybe the contenders could be asked teach grade schoolers about the Bill of Rights. Supreme Court Apprentice would address Americans’ knowledge gaps. Learning would require a combination of information and entertainment that kept people watching.

Media which make information entertaining enough to be watched, read, or consumed perform a public service, namely actually educating Americans on our political system. High school civics classes have been failing at this task, as surveys consistently document.

Yet journalists and journalism professors often criticize “soft” news programs. For example, Harvard’s Thomas Patterson claims that “soft news imposes a net cost on democracy.” I understand the frustration, since I teach people about economics. Journalists and economists can reasonably believe that our subjects are so important that people should willingly invest time and effort and endure some boredom to learn about them.

Communication requires that people pay attention. The content of a program entertaining enough to educate a general audience is unlikely to impress Sunday news show viewers. And many soft news shows will “waste” on entertainment news and celebrity interviews instead of hard news. Of course, mixing coverage keeps marginal viewers watching and learning.

The Supreme Court determines the law of the land and affects our lives. I do not expect to see Supreme Court Apprentice any time soon, but we should applaud entrepreneurial efforts to help Americans better understand our political institutions and vital issues of the day.

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Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.

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