One of the lesser-known and most significant facts about the news business these days is that Yahoo! News attracts nearly twice the Web traffic of NYTimes.com. It's a fact that my friend Eric Singer, manager of the Congressional Effect Fund, has urged me to capitalize on by devoting some critical attention to the Yahoo! News site, which is where a lot of young people get their news.
When I clicked on Yahoo! News this morning, one of the top stories was an article from the Associated Press that seemed to be devoted to criticizing President Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, for being, as the article puts it, "a wealthy member of America's power elite." The article points out that she attended "private school," and reports that she "earns more than $200,000 a year and owns a condominium in Greenwich Village, a neighborhood of million-dollar-plus homes." It depicts her as having been "a partner in a corporate law firm." The four AP reporters whose bylines are on the story even went so far as to implicitly criticize Judge Sotomayor for her brother, "a physician in North Syracuse, N.Y., whose practice doesn't accept Medicaid or Medicare — programs for the poor and elderly — according to its Web site."
It goes to show you that the definition of "wealthy" depends on where you sit. Over at Politico.com, an article by my former Harvard Crimson and New York Sun colleague Josh Gerstein is headlined "For a Justice, Sonia Sotomayor is low on dough." The article begins, "If U.S. Appellate Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor is confirmed as the Supreme Court's newest justice, she would be among its poorest. Her personal financial disclosure form filed last year puts her sum total of investments at the end 2007 from $50,001 to $115,000. She reported only two assets: a checking account and a savings account — both at Citibank."
That Greenwich Village condo that the AP makes so much of? Politico.com reports that she bought it in 1998 for $360,000, and that it has mortgages on it for $450,000. That "corporate law firm" is a small firm called Pavia & Harcourt, where her compensation, according to Politico, peaked at $150,000, which is less that what some first-year associates make at big corporate law firms. The AP says that Judge Sotomayor earns "more than $200,000 a year," but it might have also said that she earns "less than $230,000 a year" – she supplements her $184,500 federal judicial salary with about $25,000 a year total teaching at NYU and Columbia law schools.
Oh, and that "private school"? The AP doesn't explain that it wasn't Phillips Andover or Dalton but Cardinal Spellman, a Catholic high school in the Bronx.
The AP article doesn't quote any Republicans or Communists criticizing Judge Sotomayor for being "wealthy." It's just like some editor or reporter got in his or her head the idea (an odd one, if you ask me, but then again, the IRS's latest Statistics of Income Bulletin, just out today, says that income of $200,000 or more puts you in the top 3 percent of taxpayers) that an article could depict her as wealthy. Nor does the Politico article quote anyone other than Sotomayor herself describing her as not having much money.
The broader point is that when it comes to defining "wealthy," the definition can be very much in the eye of the beholder. That insight has implications not only for judging Supreme Court nominees but also for designing and assessing tax laws and other government policies.