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Supreme Court’s pandemic innovation leads to NYTimes innovation

In a first in Supreme Court coverage, The New York Times this week deployed ten reporters to listen in and provide live, running commentary of a rare moment in the history of the judiciary. 

The Supreme Court on Tuesday heard arguments on whether the House of Representatives and the Manhattan district attorney can subpoena President’s Trump’s tax and financial records — a case that tests the limits of executive power. Amid COVID-19 strictures, the debate was conducted by phone, giving the public an extraordinary, real-time entry into the justices’ domain.

The Times reporters offered a fascinating give-and-take that not only dissected an historic occasion but illustrated the Times effort to test new ways of reaching its audience.

“We had a lot of fun doing it,” said Peter Baker, the Times’ chief White House correspondent and one of the 10 live chatting through the proceeding. “And the paper is trying hard to experiment with new and creative ways of engaging with readers on big days like this.” 

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The Times has live chatted the president’s State of the Union speech and most recently offered live commentary during the House impeachment hearings. The Supreme Court, however, has been loath to air its arguments live. The virus outbreak changed that, forcing the court to hear its cases via live remote phone-ins. As Times reporter Maggie Haberman noted before the hearings began, “today’s cases are by far the most important yet under this new — and likely temporary — approach.”

Baker, a veteran correspondent who covered President Bill Clinton’s encounter with the Supreme Court in 1997, responded to our emailed queries with his impressions.

Why did the Times decide to take this all-hands-on-deck approach to coverage of arguments in this particular case?

Baker: We had an unusual confluence of factors here — an important pair of cases with profound consequences for how the government works, the fact that they came during this coronavirus pandemic and the court’s unusual method of holding the oral arguments that made it more immediate to everyday Americans than we’re used to from the justices.

How do you prepare for coverage like this?

Baker: Everything you need to know you can learn from an Adam Liptak article, and he smartly set up the stakes and issues involved here ahead of time. But I also read the briefs last night submitted by the president’s lawyers, the Justice Department, the House and the New York prosecutor’s office.

Do you all pick different lanes for comment ahead of time?

Baker: We really don’t. It’s much more organic than that. Everybody brings to the table a certain natural specialty — some have written a lot about legal or constitutional issues, others have covered the president or Congress and still others have focused on the specific issues in these cases, like the president’s taxes or the Stormy Daniels hush money case.

Who’s the intended audience and what feedback do you get?

Baker: It’s a good question. I’m not sure if there’s a specific audience beyond the obvious — anyone interested in how Washington works or in President Trump’s finances. But we get a lot of feedback and the traffic, I’m told, is really high, which speaks to the level of interest.

Have you considered audience participation/ audience questions?

Baker: Also a good question. That’s above my pay grade, I’m afraid.

How much latitude for commentary do you have — do you apply analysis standards?

Baker: In general we shouldn’t say anything in a live chat that wouldn’t be appropriate in a news story — in other words, it should be fact-based and analytical, not personal opinion. Having said that, it’s meant to be more conversational so it can be cheeky or glibber perhaps than we would ordinarily be in a story without, hopefully, crossing a journalistic line.

What did you find most remarkable from this experience?

Baker: I’ve attended or listened to Supreme Court arguments a few times but I don’t have deep experience doing it and it’s always so fascinating to listen to them chew over these momentous issues. The level of discourse is at a far different place than we’re used to in the political arena. It’s kind of a relief, even, to hear important debates conducted with respect and without the sort of toxic character that’s so prevalent in other settings.

How did this differ from the live comments you all did during the impeachment hearings?

Baker: The impeachment hearings were about both fact gathering and political combat, so we were listening then to learn new information from witnesses who had never spoken publicly before while also observing the partisan parry and thrust between the two sides as they used the moments to make their points. Here there were no new facts and little of the naked politics, so the challenge was to explain sometimes complicated legal questions and make clear why they are so important.