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University of Wisconsin–Madison

The journalist’s duty to educate: NBC News’ Pete Williams on covering the U.S. Supreme Court

MEET THE PRESS — Pictured: Pete Williams, NBC News Justice Correspondent, appears on “Meet the Press” in Washington, D.C., Sunday Sept. 18, 2016. (Photo by: William B. Plowman/NBC)

Audrey Thibert is a 2022-23 fellow at the Center for Journalism Ethics and an undergraduate student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Pete Williams, newly retired from NBC News, is revered by journalists, government officials and the public for his thoughtful and trusted reporting. During almost 30 years at NBC News, Williams covered the U.S. Supreme Court and the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security.

Williams graduated from Stanford in 1974 and worked as a reporter and news director for KTWO television and KTWO radio stations in his hometown of Casper, Wyoming, after graduating. He later began a career on Capitol Hill in 1986 as press secretary and legislative assistant to U.S. Representative Dick Cheney and later worked as the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs until he was hired as a reporter by NBC News in 1993.

At NBC News, Williams covered stories ranging from the Oklahoma City, Olympic Park and Boston Marathon bombings to the federal government’s investigation following the 9/11 terror hijackings. Williams was also a key reporter on the Microsoft anti-trust trial and decision.

On Wednesday, Dec. 7, Williams will discuss media ethics and the challenges of covering the U.S. Supreme Court in turbulent times with director of the Center for Journalism Ethics, Kathleen Bartzen Culver. The event — “Breaking Precedent: Journalism Ethics & Covering the US Supreme Court” will be held at 6:30 p.m. at the Memorial Union Play Circle on the UW–Madison campus. He will also serve as the Center’s 2022 journalist in residence. 

In advance of his visit to Madison, we spoke with Williams about his career and the future of covering the U.S. Supreme Court.

This interview has been edited for clarity and concision. 

You have extensive experience in both journalism and government. How do you feel that those two things influenced and complemented each other throughout your career? Do you think in today’s climate it would be possible for a White House spokesman to become a reporter?

I think having worked as a journalist before I got into government meant that I didn’t instantly distrust or dislike or view journalists as the enemy. On the other hand, having worked in the government gave me a perspective about how decisions get made in the real world and a little more sympathy for the people in the government who are trying to do the right thing. Tom Brokaw, who was the longtime anchor of NBC Nightly News and was a White House correspondent for NBC News, used to say that every journalist should have the experience of being the subject of a news story at some time or other to know how it feels. And so I had that experience a lot in government, and I think it made me a better reporter.

I think it’s always been harder for somebody who had the spokesman job at the White House to move into a journalism job. Now, it’s been done. George Stephanopoulos is a good example at ABC. He was a spokesman in the Clinton administration and then went to ABC first as a commentator and now in a role as a journalist and anchorman at ABC. I had a different job as the spokesman for the Pentagon. I really was, to some extent, a spokesman for administration policy. But as much as anything, I was a sort of “corporate” spokesman for the department in general for the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and to some extent the Coast Guard.

It wasn’t as political. I think everything about the White House in terms of the spokespeople, the reporters who cover it, is very political. So if you were the spokesman for the agriculture department, it might be easier to go into journalism than if you were the combative, duking it out every day in the White House Press Room spokesman.

What are some challenges of covering major breaks in precedent? What challenges do you expect future journalists to face in covering those stories?

Anytime the Supreme Court overturns the previous decision, that is a break in precedent. But remember, some of the decisions that are considered to be among the more enlightened decisions of the Supreme Court, in fact, were departures from precedent. Think of Brown v. Board of Education, which was the Supreme Court decision that struck down the notion of “separate but equal” for school children saying that it’s unconstitutional to have communities that channel black students into one sort of school and white students into another. The Supreme Court had upheld that practice earlier in a case called Plessy v. Ferguson. So that was a break in precedent, and yet many people think (Brown) was one of the Supreme Court’s better decisions.

Anytime the Supreme Court breaks precedent, there’s always a jolt to the system. The Chief Justice said so, to some extent, in his concurrence in the Dobbs decision. And the liberals on the court have been criticizing it, as well. I don’t know to what extent this coming term is going to invite that. I don’t see a lot of precedent being overturned in the coming term. I don’t think anyone would say that the Supreme Court should never overturn its previous decisions.

In his concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas raised questions about whether the same rationale used in the Dobbs decision could also be used to overturn other landmark cases like Obergefell, which protects same-sex consensual relations and same-sex marriage. Do you feel that the Obergefell decision is in trouble in the upcoming term? 

My own view is I don’t think that the Obergefell decision is in any trouble. And there are lots of reasons for that.

Let’s look at a couple of factors. Number one, the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe was in part the result of nearly 50 years of a steady, well-organized, very energetic campaign to try to get the court to revisit Roe. Overturning Roe was in the Republican national platform. It was an animating principle for many candidates for office. People are not annually marching in the streets of Washington to overturn Obergefell as they were marching on the Supreme Court every year to overturn Roe.

Two — look at the Gallup surveys on public opinions about abortion and same-sex marriage. The public opinions on abortion have been relatively flat. The lines don’t cross between people who support abortion and people who oppose abortion. They’ve stayed remarkably consistent over the years. They fluctuate a little, but if you look at the Gallup charts it’s amazing. On the other hand, it’s just the opposite with same sex marriage. It went from people who opposed same sex marriage being in the majority. That has dropped, and people supporting it have increased. The two lines crossed. Public opinion isn’t pushing for a change in it either. 

Take Sam Alito, who wrote the majority opinion in Dobbs, at his word when he says Roe is different because there’s a human life involved. I think that’s another factor.

The media often serves as the public’s only look into the Supreme Court. What is the importance of language in the context of covering the Supreme Court?

The media serves as the public’s only look into almost anything else — the city council, or what the guy said at the Rotary Club or almost anything else. The choice of language is important for two perspectives. Number one, you have to choose language that doesn’t favor one side or another. So for example, in covering the abortion issue, we would never use the term “pro-abortion” or “anti-abortion.” [Rather,] “pro-abortion rights” or “opponents of abortion,” but not “pro-abortion.” There are a lot of people who believe that women should have the right to choose, but don’t necessarily think abortion is a good idea. So you blur those two things that may be distinctive. “Pro-abortion” or “pro-life” or “pro-choice” are all very loaded terms — they are for advocates. They’re not for journalists. 

The second point is just like Mark Twain said, know the “difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” Don’t say it’s a First Amendment decision if it’s a Second Amendment decision. Don’t say it’s freedom of the press if it’s actually freedom of religion. So use the right terms to describe what the court has done.

People of my generation took civics, where they teach you how the government works. Nobody gets civics education anymore. There was an Annenberg survey that came out that said only 20%, one out of every five Americans could name even one of the three branches of government — executive, legislative, judicial. Only 20% of the respondents knew that freedom of the press was one of the rights protected by the First Amendment. It’s no wonder that people are distrustful of their government. They don’t understand how it works. I certainly felt the obligation when I was covering the courts not only to say what the court did, but why it did it and what issues were at stake. I think that that’s more important for journalists than ever before. And the need to do that, unfortunately, comes at a time when journalists are finding it harder and harder to get the time and space they need to tell complex stories.

It is an opportunity for journalists to educate, certainly. Probably more than that, a duty.

What are your thoughts on the Dobbs leaked draft opinion and Politico’s decision to publish it? 

I would say three things about the leak. Number one, I don’t think we’re ever gonna find out who did it. I assume that the leaker was smart enough not to use a Supreme Court fax machine or a Supreme Court telephone, so they were probably crafty enough to have a little discipline in how they communicated with Politico. I think the strongest hope to find out who the leaker was was for the leaker to step forward, and that didn’t happen. Maybe it’ll happen but it just doesn’t seem very likely that we’re going to find out.

Secondly, it’s hard to overstate how extraordinarily damaging the leak was to the Supreme Court as an institution. There have been leaks in the past about decisions — very few, but there have been some. But I can’t think of a time when the actual text of a decision was released. It’s just so corrosive to the trust that’s essential for the Supreme Court to work. The justices have to trust the clerks, the clerks have to trust each other, and justices have to trust each other. This leak was enormously damaging to that.

Thirdly, the question is who leaked it and why? Of course we don’t know. I think the best guess is it’s someone in the court who thought that this was the wrong thing, and they wanted to alert the country.

What did I think of Politico’s decision to publish the draft? We wondered this ourselves at NBC. I think you can ask a fair question of what good did the leak do? There are some leaks that have a definite public benefit, and there are many reasons why people in government leak things. One of the reasons that they often leak things is that something is about to happen that they think is bad and they want to try to make it not happen. This leak didn’t accomplish that, nor do I think the leak was intended to accomplish that. In the end, did it help any to have the thing leaked? Did it enhance the understanding of the court? I don’t know. I don’t think it did. I guess that’s looking at the leak from a sort of social responsibility theory of the press. And that’s not the only theory of the press. There is a libertarian theory of the press that says you print whatever is news, whatever you get your hands on, and you don’t really think about the consequences — that’s not your job.

And I suspect that’s what went through Politico’s mind. It was undoubtedly an amazing story with a heavy momentum behind wanting to publish it.

The other thing you have to ask yourself is, if they had come to NBC and we had said no, odds are that they wouldn’t stop there. And then you’ve walked away from a pretty big story, and that’s gotta fit into your calculus too.

What should access to the court look like for journalists? How do we navigate how much access we have to the justices?

We don’t have much. We see the justices when they make speeches, but we don’t interact much with them. They don’t hang out in the press room. However, if you ask them, they’ll say they are the most transparent branch of government because everything they do is right out there. Every step they take is public. You can see the cases that are filed that are coming to them, you can see which ones they take. You can listen to their oral argument. You can read all the briefs. And when they make a decision, they have to explain it. They have to write opinions about why they said so. And if they disagree, they write opinions about that. And no other branch of the government is that transparent.

Of course, we don’t see what goes on behind the scenes. We don’t see the horse trading that goes on in order to reach a majority or to try to peel somebody away from the majority and try to persuade them to dissent or vice versa. We don’t see that. We don’t see all the horse trading that goes on in the Congress either. We don’t hear all of the decisions or all the meetings behind the scenes at the White House in formulating policy.

Should we have more access to the justices? Should they have to explain themselves more? I don’t know. They’re not a political branch, and I don’t think we should expect them to act like one. There are times when you can peek behind the curtain, when a justice’s papers are published. You can see a lot of what goes on behind the scenes if they exchange memos in drafting opinions. And then there have been times where I’ve reported on which justices are going to retire before they announce it.

Where do you think coverage of the Supreme Court should and will go going forward? Will this term be different from past terms?

I guess there may be one difference. This was true last term as well, but we now have a Supreme Court where every liberal was appointed by Democratic president, and every conservative on the court was appointed by a Republican president. That traditionally has not been true. I mean, Anthony Kennedy, who was often a swing vote, was a Reagan appointee. So was Sandra Day O’Connor, who was a swing vote. John Paul Stevens, who often voted with the liberals, was a Ford appointee. Those are Republican presidents. But now we have the situation where we have a six to three super majority for the conservatives, and the court seems much more partisan. I think there’s an argument made that it is much more partisan now than it has been before. So I think the coverage of the court will likely reflect that obvious fact.

What is the advice you would give to student journalists who want to cover the Supreme Court? What is the advice you would give to students who want to go into the journalism field more broadly?

Whether you wanna cover the Supreme Court, or City Hall, or the mayor, or anything — learn to write. I think people who are interested, especially in broadcast journalism, think, “What do you need to write for? You talk into the camera or into the radio microphone or into the streaming channel.” And the answer is that writing is still extremely important. We have a limited amount of time in which to tell complicated stories.

So the ability to condense without distorting turns out to be quite important. The news audience is becoming more and more diversified and broken up and balkanized, and you have to attract people’s attention. You have to write creatively and make people say, “That sounds interesting. I’d like to hear more about that.” It takes skill to learn how to do that. You just can’t spend enough time learning to write.

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