[She opined that the 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, other places around the world, the U.S. Congress, whatever. And let’s not forget the sustained assault on women’s reproductive freedom and the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism.” She later added, “I feel a growing obligation to reach out across the ridiculous actual barrier that we seem about to build on the Mexican border. ...”Calame notes the "muted" reaction from the management of the NYT and says that Greenhouse told him that "she considers her remarks at Harvard to be 'statements of fact' — not opinion — that would be allowed to appear in a Times news article." Statements of fact? With words like "assault" and "hijacking"? The contention that these are "statements of fact" bothers me more than the disclosure of personal opinion.
The Times’s ethical guideline states that news staffers appearing on radio or television “should avoid expressing views that go beyond what they would be allowed to say in the paper.” It is obvious, I think, that the guideline also applies to other venues. And Bill Keller, the executive editor, made clear in an e-mail message to me that the standard applies to all Times journalists “when they speak in public.”
It seems clear to me that Ms. Greenhouse stepped across that line during her speech. Times news articles are not supposed to contain opinion. A news article containing the phrase “the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism” would get into the paper only as a direct quote from a source. The same would go for any news article reference to “the ridiculous actual barrier” on the Mexican border.
The Times has its policy constraining the speech of journalists, and as Calame notes, an interest in avoiding "giving the paper’s critics fresh opportunities to snipe at its public policy coverage." If the management of the Times has decided to let the incident pass, he says, it has accepted this risk. Then maybe the question is whether the policy should be reframed, so that it explicitly permits journalists to speak more freely. Calame thinks not.
[J]ournalism [is] a calling ... that requires sacrifices and special obligations. Keeping personal opinions out of the public realm is simply one of the obligations for those who remain committed to the importance of impartial news coverage.Here's NPR's coverage of the story, which includes links to the audio and the text of the Greenhouse speech. She speaks with fervor and conveys a sense of personal expression, and the audience responds to that. It's an extremely well-done speech, and the problem is only about the Times's specific policy and journalistic ethics more generally. The NPR webpage quotes Daniel Okrent, the first NYT public editor:
He says he is amazed by Greenhouse's remarks.Greenhouse's speech didn't seem that out of line to me, because I am so used to hearing law professors express all kinds of personal and political opinions about the Supreme Court, and, obviously, I do it all the time myself. I'm trying to imagine a law school where the professors felt they needed to make sacrifices and suppress and submerge their opinions. Actually, it's a scary place! Do you really want us to become more devious? (Recall the discussion here a few months ago about an op-ed by Stanley Fish about whether teachers need to exclude their political opinions from classroom teaching.)
"It's been a basic tenet of journalism ... that the reporter's ideology [has] to be suppressed and submerged, so the reader has absolute confidence that what he or she is reading is not colored by previous views," Okrent says.
Charges of media bias are routinely thrown at the Times and other media outlets, from both the left and the right. Okrent says he never received a single complaint about bias in Greenhouse's coverage. He wonders whether journalists really need to smother their private beliefs to be fair in their articles.
When I read journalistic writing, I always assume the reporter has political opinions, and I try to figure out what they are. Both Okrent and Calame make a point of praising Greenhouse for reaching a high standard of neutrality in her journalistic writing. But that shouldn't make anyone think she doesn't actually have opinions. It just means you'd have to do a very sophisticated analysis to figure out if any of her opinion finds its way into her presentation of the complicated statements of Supreme Court justices (which are themselves carefully written to exclude the appearance of personal opinion).
So I'm not disturbed by what Greenhouse said in her speech, and I think Okrent is right that reporters can have a little more freedom than the official NYT policy seems to require.
IN THE COMMENTS: A reader reminds us of the longstanding term "Greenhouse effect," referring to the tendency of judges to become liberal over time as they frame opinions intended to please the NYT. Here's a recent use of the term:
"The Greenhouse Effect" is the name of a phenomenon popularized by D.C. Appeals Court Judge Laurence Silberman referring to federal judges whose rulings are guided solely by their need for adulation from legal reporters such as Linda Greenhouse of the New York Times. The idea is that once confirmed, justices become desperate to be invited to the right cocktail parties and conform their views to those of the liberal intelligentsia....That last bit fits with this thing I said yesterday. Most women don't find topless dancing to be vastly fun, though, and the way of thinking about fun that is so thoroughly from the male point of view that it doesn't even notice that it's forgetting about how women feel really doesn't seem likely to produce more fun for women. Or is that the point? Conservative men have more fun at parties because they don't worry so much about what women think.
The problem with this theory is that it accepts a great conservative fiction: that there is vast, hegemonic liberal control over the media and academia. This may have been somewhat true once, but it's patently untrue today. Jurists desperate for sweet media love can hop into bed with the Limbaugh/Coulter/FOX News crowd. Clarence Thomas has made a career of it. There is a significant and powerful conservative presence in the media, inside the Beltway, and in academia. And my own guess is that Federalist cocktail parties in D.C. are vastly more fun than their no-smoking/vegan/no-topless-dancing counterparts on the left.