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Originally published Tuesday, July 14, 2009 at 12:27 PM

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Sotomayor hearings: not exactly must-see TV

The most eye-catching thing about Tuesday's TV coverage of the Sotomayor hearings? The bright red jacket worn by Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor for her second day before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

AP Television Writer

NEW YORK —

The most eye-catching thing about Tuesday's TV coverage of the Sotomayor hearings? The bright red jacket worn by Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor for her second day before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The cardinal hue of the nominee's attire didn't minimize, or upstage, the gravity of the occasion: her questioning for confirmation to the nation's highest court.

But it spoke to the contrast with past televised hearings for Supreme Court nominees, when the drama on the screen left viewers no time to contemplate, or maybe even notice, what anyone on camera might have chosen to be wearing.

Robert Bork's doomed-to-failure nomination to the Supreme Court in 1987 is legendary - but less for having left behind any lasting TV images than for establishing a lasting term: to be "borked," or sabotaged in the media, which Bork's defenders claimed led to his rejection by the Senate.

Then, in October 1991, an unforgettable TV event erupted with the confirmation hearings for President George H.W. Bush's Supreme Court pick, Clarence Thomas. Those 10 stormy days left the nation polarized over politics, race and sex. The nominee was confirmed but, in his own bitter words, "died a thousand deaths" in the process.

Not only was the gavel-to-gavel TV coverage galvanizing, but subsequently inspired a TV dramatization. In 1999, Showtime aired "Strange Justice," a film starring Delroy Lindo as Thomas and Regina Taylor as Anita Hill, Thomas' former colleague who accused him of sexual harassment.

Tuesday, at least, viewers could have reasonably concluded that no high-drama film would result from the Sotomayor hearings.

In her testimony, she remained calm and deliberate.

Her questioners, in general, were courteous, however persistent and challenging. It was all pretty low-key, no matter how lively some network commentators tried to make the proceedings seem.

"Let's just say, it had some fireworks," said a Fox News Channel anchor after what she described perhaps overzealously as "no-holds-barred" questioning from Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, the committee's ranking Republican.

Author Richard Wolffe on MSNBC had a slightly milder reaction. "(Sessions) was basically saying she was either lying or misconstruing. Beyond the civility of these kinds of hearings, there was a sharp and stark difference between them."

While C-SPAN and PBS gave the hearings no-frills, uninterrupted coverage, the cable news channels seemed to bear out the notion that the hearings weren't terribly absorbing - and pretty murky stuff for the average viewer.

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On CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel, coverage intermittently defaulted to panelists debating what Sotomayor had just said, at the cost of skipping what she was testifying at that moment.

Or, as Fox News Channel explained to its viewers, "dipping in and out" of the hearings.

There was no dipping in and out for the Clarence Thomas hearings 18 years ago. Not only did PBS and cable networks cover the sessions, but the commercial broadcast networks also jumped on board as things heated up - even Saturday morning, when children's cartoons gave way to remarkably graphic sexual testimony.

For Tuesday's Sotomayor coverage, the broadcast networks stuck to their usual schedule of soaps and talk shows. No one was saying these hearings weren't important. Just not must-see TV.

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