By Jefferson Flanders
Is American journalism in danger of “strangling in its own sanctimony,” as suggested by New York Times Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse?

Greenhouse was responding to criticism by journalists and journalism school professors of remarks she made at Harvard in June (comments which received wide-spread attention only recently, when National Public Radio reported on the speech), where she told her audience “our government had turned its energy and attention away from upholding the rule of law and toward creating law-free zones at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Haditha and other places around the world. And let’s not forget the sustained assault on women’s reproductive freedom and the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism.”

Greenhouse also added: “I feel a growing obligation to reach out across the ridiculous actual barrier that we seem about to build on the Mexican border…”

That her comments violated New York Times ethics guidelines for news staffers seems fairly clear, an observation made by Times public editor Byron Calame:

“The Times’s guideline requires its journalists to demonstrate, to sources and readers, a determination to be an impartial observer by keeping personal opinions separate and private — not pretending they don’t exist. It’s not a unique concept in our society. It doesn’t seem all that different from the way judges and military officers, for instance, traditionally have been expected to exercise restraint in publicly expressing their personal views, especially about politics.”

“The guideline’s broadest value comes from serving as a formal reminder for Times journalists of their need to be disciplined about personal opinions. Public perceptions of bias, which can be sparked by some nuance in carefully edited articles, are likely to be triggered even more easily by expressions of personal opinion outside the news columns. The merest perception of bias in a reporter’s personal views can plant seeds of doubt that may grow in a reader’s mind to become a major concern about the credibility of the paper.”

Most American news organizations require their reporters to function as impartial observers. The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics calls for a divide between “advocacy and news reporting,” and maintains that journalists should “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived” and “remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.”

Greenhouse’s defense has been that her remarks at Harvard were “statements of facts,” not opinions, that “would be allowed to appear in a Times news article.” Greenhouse also said that: “The notion that someone cannot go and speak from the heart to a group of college classmates and fellow alums, without being accountable to self-appointed media watchdogs, means American journalism is in danger of strangling in its own sanctimony.”

It seems, however, that Greenhouse is having a hard time distinguishing between facts and opinions. Is it factual to say that “women’s reproductive freedom is under siege?” It is for those who view any change in the “abortion-on-demand” status quo—such as parental notification laws or moves to restrict late-in-term abortions—as a reduction in “reproductive freedom,” but many Americans (at least according to the public opinion polls) would disagree. (Greenhouse obviously feels deeply about the question: she was rebuked by the Times in 1989 when she joined in a Washington march in support of abortion rights.)

It is the same for her comment about the government “creating law-free zones at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Haditha and other places around the world.” That smacks of the partisan; whether the rule of law has been applied to prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib remains a matter of debate (and perception). Haditha—where 24 Marines are charged with a My Lai type massacre—is another matter. Is Greenhouse suggesting that the U.S. military is operating without any concern for the law? The argument can be made that the indictments of the Marines proves just the opposite, that the military is concerned with protecting the lives of civilians both through its rules of engagement and its prosecution of soldiers who violate them.

Calame took specific issue with Greenhouse’s remarks about “the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism” and “the ridiculous actual barrier” on the Mexican border, noting that neither would be published in a Times news article.

To date, Bill Keller, editor of the Times has taken no public action in the Greenhouse matter. She will apparently be allowed to continue on her Supreme Court beat. There are some—such as Daniel Okrent, Calame’s predecessor as public editor—who argue that Greenhouse has successfully cordoned off her reporting from her political views. Okrent says that he never received any complaints about bias in Greenhouse’s reporting during his time at the Times, but that proves little. I am sure that many on the political Right might provide examples of what they perceive of Greenhouse’s slant if prompted; the Wall Street Journal called Greenhouse “the alpha liberal of the Supreme Court press pack,” and Federal appeals-court judge Laurence Silberman, a conservative, has argued that some judges have veered to the left to gain Greenhouse’s approval—something he dubbed the Greenhouse Effect.

It may be that Greenhouse has stuck to “objective-means” journalism in her reporting on the Supreme Court. But that she sees her comments at Harvard as “statements of fact,” fit for inclusion in a news article, should be worrisome for the Times news management. Is she credible as an impartial observer? Will sources or readers see her as disinterested or neutral?

There is room for those with strong opinions in American journalism, just not in straight news coverage. So there’s a very simple solution to the Greenhouse situation: the new Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal could offer Greenhouse an op-ed column, allowing her to express her views openly. Greenhouse could join the other liberal columnists—Maureen Dowd, Frank Rich—who made the shift from the newsroom to offering opinions, and the Times could find a Supreme Court beat reporter with less ideological baggage and more journalistic detachment.

Reprinted from Neither Red nor Blue
Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders

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