NPR's Totenberg Touts Elena Kagan as Harvard's 'Superman'

Last Friday on TV, NPR legal reporter Nina Totenberg touted Obama Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan as "spectacularly successful" - twice. But that was mellow compared to her Tuesday report for Morning Edition, where she enthusiastically pitched her record as dean of Harvard Law School as a Superman legend (The audio valentine is here):
NINA TOTENBERG: In some ways, the descriptions of Elena Kagan as dean sound a little bit like the beginning of the old "Superman" TV series.

INTRO TO OLD SUPERMAN TV SHOW: Superman, who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in his bare hands!

TOTENBERG: Translate that to Harvard, and you can almost hear the music. (Superman music in background)

Kagan, who can raise money by the millions!

Kagan, who can end the faculty wars over hiring!

Kagan, who won the hearts of students!

Some of the details are just as over the top with enthusiasm:

CHARLES OGLETREE: Oh, they loved her. In fact, when she did not get appointed as the university president, the students here at Harvard wore T-shirts around saying: I Love Dean Kagan.

TOTENBERG: Kagan famously did things to make student life nicer. Musing that winter was too long and dark, she had a wild idea, for instance: flood a grassy area on the campus, put hay bales around it, light it, and presto, an ice rink. It was a huge success, a student gathering place.

Do you have to be Superman to make a puddle of ice? The story wasn't entirely positive. Totenberg allowed that Kagan was known as an angry screamer:

TOTENBERG: The cheerful, charming Kagan so beloved by the students was not always in evidence elsewhere. Secretaries and faculty members alike have stories of Kagan screaming at people, slamming doors and chewing out subordinates in public - a trait that she is said to have carried with her to her next job as solicitor general. She's a yeller, conceded one of her friends with a smile. One of her admirers, Professor Tushnet, put it this way.

MARK TUSHNET: Her weakness as a dean was that she really didn't like people to disagree with her. But that's not something that you can do in the Supreme Court.

So much for the idea that Kagan was going to be the next Justice Brennan in sweet-talking the justices on the right into building coalitions. Totenberg's story allowed no criticism from the right, only from the left.

Some on the left, however, said they stopped going to faculty meetings because they viewed discussion as truncated and disagreements as glossed over. Said one campus critic: I think she has a political heart. She wants to do good, but she has no soul, no center of gravity. So her heart can move depending on the political moment. While Kagan succeeded in bringing greater ideological diversity to the faculty, she was not nearly as successful in hiring more minorities and women.

So the story wasn't all positive, but it was still tilted to the left. Can anyone imagine Totenberg would have considered a Sam Alito story featuring only criticism from conservatives?

-Tim Graham is Director of Media Analysis at the Media Research Center.