The greatest nothingburger: Rolling Stone's hilarious Alito 'scoop'

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Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and his wife, Martha-Ann, are as controversial as the Pledge of Allegiance, or the phrase printed on all U.S. currency, “In God we Trust.” Which is to say, they are not controversial at all. 

You would think otherwise from following Rolling Stone’s publication this week of surreptitiously recorded audio of the Alitos. Don’t be fooled: The “scoops” themselves are unremarkable. What is remarkable, however, is the enthusiasm with which Rolling Stone’s competitors have amplified its “exclusive” coverage

The eagerness of the New York Times, the Washington Post, CBS New and others to highlight Rolling Stone’s reporting is curious given that these organizations have previously condemned this type of content and the process by which it was produced.

We are told regularly it’s dirty pool to use the underhanded methods championed by the likes of right-wing provocateur James O’Keefe. We are told his strategies fall far short of the basic standards of ethical journalism. 

More importantly, it wasn’t so long ago that these news organizations rushed to dismiss a sting operation showing Planned Parenthood executives discussing the processes by which organs from the remains of aborted children can be harvested and donated, for a fee. The press warned from the outset that the undercover videos, which pro-life activists produced, were almost certain to have been selectively edited. Members of the press would later assert that the videos were definitely manipulated, which they were not.

The New York Times touted a study that claimed the Planned Parenthood tapes “were altered,” which was not true. The report did not mention until the seventh paragraph that the left-wing-aligned consulting group Fusion GPS had produced this so-called study. That Planned Parenthood itself had commissioned the study was also not mentioned until the ninth paragraph. Most tellingly, the report never mentioned that Fusion GPS operatives had watched only half of the videos produced by these pro-life activists, all of which were made available to the public in their original uncut form.

Elsewhere, the Times’s editorial board rushed to denounce the videos, condemning their production methods and what the paper characterized as a “campaign of deception.”

CBS News reported later that the videos had been “discredited,” even though no such thing had happened. In fact, in 2019, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed that the tapes were “authentic and not deceptively edited.” Nevertheless, the Washington Post declared later that same year that the videos had been “heavily edited.” The Post declined to say what was edited or whether its reporters had even watched the original, uncut footage. 

It has been confusing, therefore, to see many of the same news organizations express so little concern or skepticism about the authenticity of the Alito tapes, which were captured by a leftist activist posing as a conservative Catholic at an event.

So it’s just a bit weird, those moments when the press decides to relax its standards.

Alito and his wife appeared last week at the Supreme Court Historical Society’s annual dinner, a private, media-free affair in which tickets can fetch $500 per head. Left-wing activist Lauren Windsor, who describes herself as a filmmaker and journalist, attended the dinner as a dues-paying member.

During the event, Windsor, armed with a hidden tape recorder and posing as a hardcore Christian, approached the Alitos. Throughout her brief encounters with the couple, Windsor repeatedly sucked up to both husband and wife (“I’m a huge fan of your husband,” “they’re persecuting you, and you’re, like, a convenient stand-in for anybody who’s religious,” etc.) while performing what can be described as a sort of right-wing blackface (“[People] in this country who believe in God have got to keep fighting for that, to return our country to a place of godliness,” “[A]s a Catholic and as someone who, like, really cherishes my faith, I just don’t, I don’t know that we can negotiate with the Left in the way that needs to happen for the polarization to end,” etc.).

The most we learn from Windsor’s interaction with Martha-Ann is that the latter holds grudges against certain journalists; that she would like to hoist a flag of the Sacred Heart of Jesus to counterprogram the gay pride flag that flies across from her home; and that, yes, her husband had nothing to do with the flag kerfuffle we’ve heard so much about recently. There goes that “scandal.”

There was also an odd moment when Martha-Ann said of the journalists who helped manufacture the flag “scandal,” “Look at me, look at me. I’m German, from Germany. My heritage is German. You come after me, I’m going to give it back to you. And there will be a way — it doesn’t have to be now — but there will be a way they will know.”

Windsor responded, “I love that you have that attitude, because that’s more of what we need.”

Later, from the safe confines of social media, Windsor theorized that Martha-Ann’s comments about her German heritage may have meant that she believes Jews control the media and that she, a woman of German descent, would get revenge. Or something. 

This is the risk so-called journalists run when they misrepresent themselves and their intentions. Pretending to be a caricature of a conservative Catholic left Windsor with her hands tied. She was unable to follow up, forced to play-act as if she understood exactly what Alito was saying, and this left her with no choice but to theorize blindly later on.

This is why it’s important for journalists to identify themselves by name and employer at the outset of any interview. It’s a standard practice of ethical journalism. That’s not just because lying is wrong (this needs to be said, apparently) but also because it strengthens the quality of the reporting. Radical transparency allows reporters to pursue stories and questions easily and freely.

In other words, an actual journalist could have pressed Mrs. Alito to clarify her remarks.

Windsor, who has previously expressed concerns about the authenticity of other people’s surreptitiously captured footage, defended her choice to misrepresent herself and her views to the Alitos. She argued that she could not have gotten such candid remarks had she properly identified herself as a journalist. Congratulations, Miss Windsor. You have just now, in the year 2024, stumbled across a dilemma that most journalists learn to navigate as interns. 

As for Justice Alito, we learn from the secretly recorded audio that he is worried about political polarization. He believes that “one side or the other is going to win.” He hopes the country can find a “way of living together peacefully,” but he believes this will be “difficult,” given there are “differences on fundamental things that really can’t be compromised,” and “it’s not like you are going to split the difference.”

We also learn that Alito, like the men who founded our country country, agrees to the idea that the U.S. should return to a “place of godliness.” But importantly, Alito did not say the words “place of godliness.” The woman pretending to be a religious conservative said those words. Alito only assented.

Windsor’s actual words were: “People in this country who believe in God have got to keep fighting for that — to return our country to a place of godliness.”

Responded Alito, “I agree with you.”

Should believers be godly? The question seems to answer itself. Or did Alito just answer as he did out of politeness, as people often do in conversations?

This wasn’t even the first time Windsor had attended the Supreme Court Historical Society’s annual dinner to record Alito secretly. She did the same in 2023, and the results likewise reflected well on the justice.

In an unguarded moment, when the woman posing falsely as a hardcore Catholic tried to lure him into revealing his true beliefs, Alito revealed only that he is a levelheaded jurist with a sober view of the Supreme Court’s role in the republic. 

Said Windsor, “I think it’s taking us to the brink of, you know, very serious and perhaps, like, non-repairable rifts in the country. And I for one am someone, like — I support your ruling on [the abortion decision] Dobbs. I support, like — I am very pro-life, but, like, you know, I don’t know how we bridge that gap.”

Alito, who had written the majority opinion in the decision overturning Roe. v. Wade, said, “I wish I knew. I wish I knew. I don’t know. It’s not — I don’t think it’s something we can do.”

“But the court can’t do anything to —” interjected Windsor.

“We have a very defined role,” Alito interrupted. “We need to do what we’re supposed to do, but this is a bigger problem. This is way above us. So, I wish I knew the answer. I do.”

The 2023 encounter between Windsor and Alito lasted about six minutes. The above represents the totality of the justice’s remarks on jurisprudence. Weirdly, the above quotes are nowhere to be found in Rolling Stones’s exclusive reporting, even though several quotes from the 2023 audio somehow made their way into the coverage.

Like many of James O’Keefe’s “bombshell” reports, Windsor’s undercover scoop is a snoozer. It is no shock that a conservative couple is conservative. Yet even though there is no there there, competing news outlets have raced to amplify Rolling Stone’s coverage, perhaps forgetting that they have warned extensively against far more credible and newsworthy sting operations. 

CBS News, for example, published a report this week mentioning the secretly recorded Alito tapes, carefully quoting the parts where the judge spoke about compromise between left and right. The report included no warning about the authenticity of the audio. CBS made no mention of whether it had even bothered to verify the audio for itself.

The Washington Post at least mentioned this week, amid its flurry of opinion articles and news coverage, that it hadn’t verified Windsor’s audio.           

“Alito’s ‘Godliness’ Comment Echoes a Broader Christian Movement,” the New York Times reported. But this headline isn’t even accurate. Alito didn’t say anything about “Godliness.” Windsor, the activist, said that.

Then again, accuracy isn’t the point of stories like this one. Nor even of that idiot news cycle dedicated to the “Appeal to Heaven” flag. The point of these stories is to undermine, by any means necessary, the one branch of the federal government that Democrats seem unlikely to regain any time soon. 

Becket Adams is a writer in Washington and program director for the National Journalism Center.

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