If anyone should be into watching hours of SCOTUS Senate hearings, it is Alex Hamilton. The 32-year-old law school grad just took the New Jersey bar exam this month and calls himself a “civics nerd.”
But as Amy Coney Barrett’s all-but-inevitable confirmation process dragged on, Hamilton could not bring himself to turn on C-SPAN.
“It just doesn’t feel very informative or useful,” Hamilton said. “Yesterday, I kind of forgot the hearings were starting. Then I saw an article about it. But I took the bar last week and then my family visited for a couple days, so it’s nice to have a day off and not think about anything. I just want to wear sweatpants and read a book instead of doing something that I know will frustrate me.”
Part of Hamilton’s apathy comes from the fact that he knows how the story will end. Barrett will most likely become a justice. So why should he have to see it unfurl in real time?
“I’ll watch the highlights and read recaps about what happened,” Hamilton said. “I feel like watching it all day, you get sucked into it and spend a whole week doing nothing. I don’t want to be the person who checks out, but you also have to prioritize what you focus on to keep your head above water and keep some semblance of a normal life.”
He is not the only person “checking out” this week. The Barrett hearings are the latest in an avalanche of 2020 news; at some point people need to stop the nausea-inducing ride and get off. Only two weeks ago, Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis torpedoed the lives of those hoping for a restful weekend (journalists or not); every day seems to bring a new, disturbing chyron. But many have hit their limits.
“I can’t watch it, it makes me too mad,” said Samantha Miller, who is 25 and a full-time college student studying global public health in Massachusetts. “It just feels pointless to watch, get mad about, and then not be able to contact anyone or do anything about it. Both of my senators have said they will vote no [on confirming Barrett], which is great, but if you’re not a constituent it’s not up to you to convince any other senator. So it begins and ends there for me.”
(Nielsen ratings for the SCOTUS hearings were not available by press time; a representative for CSPAN told The Daily Beast the nonprofit network never releases viewer numbers.)
Benjamin Toff is an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota’s Hubbard School of Journalism, and studies news avoidance. He is working on a book about the topic, along with Ruth Palmer and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen.
Last year, Toff and his co-authors went to Iowa to interview people who do not keep up with politics. Their sample consisted of Iowans who self-reported accessing news less than once a month, or never. (This is a very small segment of the public—Toff’s survey estimates around 5.5 percent of Americans.)
“One of the things we were interested in was, when there’s a big political thing happening, do people change their news habits?” Toff said. “A lot of what those news avoiders had to say resonates with people like me, who do consume quite a bit of news. There were concerns about the news being depressing, upsetting, this feeling that there’s very little they can actually do about what they’re hearing about. That’s disempowering rather than helping people feel politically engaged.”
The same goes for anyone tuning into the Barrett hearings. “What’s playing out is pre-ordained and there’s not much point in paying attention,” Toff said.
It is also true that, historically, senate hearings were never must-see television. “It’s rare that Americans would be that closely attuned to this process anyway,” Toff said. “I care about people tuning into the news—I’m a journalism professor—but it wasn’t that long ago that being a healthy, engaged citizen of the world meant you only tuned in once or twice a day.”
Christopher M. Federico, a professor of political science and psychology at the University of Minnesota, agreed that the depth of the partisan divide makes these hearings particularly unwatchable for some.
“In a number of respects, the Barrett hearings are a manifestation of polarization in the context of American politics,” Federico said. “Things that would have been more routine in the past, like a president’s appointment of a justice, is not how politics works anymore. Every one of these things turns into a very intense, partisan conflict. People are kind of worn out with it.”
“Conflict upsets people, so any set of events that reminds them of that could kick in the process of withdrawing from the news,” Federico added.
Stephen Pierce, a 23-year-old college student in Newport News, Virginia, remembers watching the Brett Kavanaugh hearings in 2018, even though that process took place during an exceptionally busy time in his life. His sister was getting married, and he watched Christine Blasey Ford’s emotional testimony the morning before driving to the beach where the wedding took place.
Two years later, things are different. “I think it’s important for me to know what’s going on, so a part of me wants to watch [Barrett],” Pierce said. “Another part of me thinks, you’re going to get heartburn.”
Pierce feels “burned out” from the news. When Trump ran for president in 2015, he watched all his rallies. “Cable news channels would play them for hours,” he recalled. “That was really scary, and I felt like I had to watch as an American. We can’t let that guy be our president. Well, he ended up being our president, and I can’t watch those rallies anymore. That was the first time I had to close my eyes and my ears.”
Shelby Capone, a 25-year-old actor and babysitter who lives in New York, did watch the hearings, or as much of it as she could while the kids she watches took naps or attended Zoom classes.
“I didn’t want to,” Capone said. “[Barrett] keeps saying how neutral she is, but her record is not neutral. It feels like being gaslit, almost.”
She’s unimpressed with both sides. “There were people who are Democrats asking questions that were very inflammatory or, ‘Look at me,’” she said. “It felt performative. No one was having a conversation. Of course this would happen three weeks before an election, but it was disheartening to see that our system isn’t working.”
The day left Capone feeling defeated, and she has no idea how to manage that emotion. “There is an overwhelming barrage of bad things happening, and I want to try to do something that helps, be clued into what’s going on, but it feels so crazy,” she said. “How do I come to terms with this as an artist? Do I just go to law school and become a judge? It feels like there’s nothing you can do.”