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Fair and Balanced?
A former New York Times ombudsman says Linda Greenhouse’s political comments aren’t necessarily a bad thing.
New York Times
Sept. 28, 2006 - Linda Greenhouse is unarguably a leader in her field. For nearly 30 years, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter has covered the Supreme Court for the paper of record, The New York Times. Back before she covered the high court, she became the first woman to work out of the Times's state capital bureau in Albany. Among many awards, Greenhouse received the 2004 career award for excellence in journalism from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and this past June, was asked to return to Harvard Law School to give a speech.
Three months later, that speech has raised questions about Greenhouse's objectivity, as some claim she broke the basic tenet of journalism. Speaking to an audience of hundreds, Greenberg reminisced about her college years of 1960s idealism, but charged that since then the U.S. government had "turned its energy and attention away from upholding the rule of law and toward creating law-free zones at Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Haditha and other places around the world." She went on to attack the "sustained assault on women's reproductive freedom" and "the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism."
Those statements came to the fore Tuesday after National Public Radio aired a piece about their propriety, quoting editors across the nation. Daniel Okrent, the Times's first public editor and in-house journalism critic, told NPR he was "amazed" by Greenhouse's comments—but tells NEWSWEEK he was also thrilled. He spoke with Jessica Bennett about his hope that Greenhouse's comments may open up the dialogue about journalists' abilities to separate their public and private lives. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Elaborate on what you meant when you told NPR you were "amazed" by Greenhouse's comments.
Daniel Okrent: When I said that I was amazed, I was kind of amazed and thrilled. My point was that when I was at the Times for 18 months, Linda was writing about the most sensitive, divisive issues in America—those that have come before the Supreme Court. She wrote about them analytically, not quoting other experts, but stating her own analyses of why things were this way and that way and what the court meant by that—and I never received a single complaint [about her]. Which is to say that no one ever perceived any ideological bias in her work.
What does that say about journalists' ability to keep their reporting separate from their ideological views?
There's a distinction between what a journalist may think about the issues of the day and how the journalist writes about the issues of the day. And that's the way it ought to be. [Greenhouse's] views should not come into her work, which they don't, even though we now know that she has very strong political views.
Greenhouse has been doing this for nearly three decades. Is there any reason to believe she can't keep her personal views from overflowing into her reporting?
If you can do that—writing about these things in the way that she does and maintain that [sense of objectivity]—then it seems to me that what she does in her private life is her private life. She demonstrates very clearly that no matter how strongly [she] feels about issues ... it doesn't affect the quality of her work or the way people perceive it.
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