The most respected Supreme Court reporter of her generation slams media “objectivity” | Spanlish

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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The most respected Supreme Court reporter of her generation slams media “objectivity”

Linda Greenhouse on why “the opposite of objectivity isn’t partisanship."

“The opposite of objectivity isn’t partisanship, or needn’t be,” Linda Greenhouse writes in her new book Just a Journalist: On the Press, Life, and the Spaces Between. “Rather, it is judgment, the hard work of sorting out the false claims from the true and discarding or at least labeling the false.”

Greenhouse, who covered the US Supreme Court for nearly three decades for the New York Times, maintains in her book that journalists all too often abandon the search for truth for the sake of illusionary fairness.

She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for her Supreme Court coverage, and retired from the Times staff in 2008 after a 40-year tenure (she’s still a contributing op-ed writer for the paper). In one famous instance in 1989, Greenhouse violated the Times’s conflict of interest policies by marching for abortion rights, even as she was covering the high court’s decisions on abortion. In a speech to a Harvard Radcliffe College alumnae group, she criticized the “law-free zones” at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and Haditha — again, while working as an objective reporter at the Times (she told the Times’s then-public editor that her remarks were “statements of fact”). In both cases, the Times publicly stated that Greenhouse broke their rules but did not mention if the violation affected her role.

Just a Journalist began as a series of lectures she gave at Harvard in 2015, a time when, she writes, “Donald J. Trump was such an implausible candidate that I took no account of how mainstream journalism was treating him.” Since then, she notes that Trump’s constant distortions have pointed out the flaws of the journalistic norm of “fair and balanced” objectivity, including by her former employer the New York Times.

“To the extent that my commentary is critical,” Greenhouse writes, “I hope the criticism can be seen as coming from one who regards the Times as an essential element of our civil fabric and who wants only the best for it — and from it.”

She’s currently the Knight distinguished journalist in residence and Joseph Goldstein lecturer in law at Yale Law School. I recently talked with Greenhouse by phone about her view of press objectivity, why the media doesn’t use the word “lie” more often, and which US Supreme Court cases we should be paying attention to.

Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Eric Allen Been

You disclose publicly for the first time in the book that you donated on a monthly basis to Planned Parenthood while still a reporter at the New York Times. Why did you think it was important to put that out there?

Linda Greenhouse

I've never hidden anything. And as I say in the book, when I started donating to Planned Parenthood I informed the publisher of the Times and I put a letter up about it on the bulletin board in the office. So I'm very amused to read the right-wing blogs who say that I outed myself, or I boasted about it, or I disclosed it [in my new book]. It's never been a secret. And I never got any pushback. It's just that in the current climate, things that were perfectly ordinary have become something close to scandalous. The reaction to that one paragraph in my book really proves my point.

Eric Allen Been

You argue that the boundaries between a journalist and a private citizen are “too rigid.” Why do you think that's the case?

Linda Greenhouse

Well, I think it's unduly rigid right now. There's sort of a spasm of sanctimony that has overtaken the mainstream media in recent years. Why do I think that is? I think the worst thing that anybody can say — the worst, the most threatening insults that anybody can hurl at the mainstream media — are, "You're biased. You're not objective." And so how do you show that you're not biased? You have two sides to every story, whether the story really has two sides or not. You draw boundaries around what's appropriate behavior for your staff. But as a journalist, I want to be judged by my journalistic work. That's what I would live or die on.

Eric Allen Been

Do you think American newspapers should change their rules about reporters taking political stands? Journalists today would still get in trouble for marching for abortion rights as you did — and possibly get fired.

Linda Greenhouse

I don't know what you mean by "political stands" in this context. Don't forget that I was simply one marcher among 500,000 people. I wasn't marching under a banner that said "New York Times reporter for choice." I would not have done that. My point here is that one's personal behavior, I believe, does not and should not implicate the newspaper.

That's why in the book I am critical of the Times directive forbidding employees from participation in the Women's March this past January. People have a right to show and be counted in a way that doesn't implicate the employer. I do not, for instance, disagree with limits the Times has recently placed on employees' use of Twitter. Use of social media by people with recognized Times bylines necessarily implicates the Times; I get that. That’s different from anything am talking about. It may seem a small distinction, but to me it's a significant one.

Eric Allen Been

You note that your participation in the march received “a great deal of media attention, not only domestically but also in Europe, where the notion that a newspaper should reveal no discernible political valence has always been alien.” Would you like to see American newspapers adopt a similar ethos?

Linda Greenhouse

I really don't have an opinion on whether newspapers should or should not be politically identifiable. I'm talking in the book about individual journalists as citizens. Publishers are certainly free to cast themselves however they want, and readers can follow or not follow along.

Eric Allen Been

You write that there is a contention to be made that the coverage of the 2016 campaign amplified the faults of the “fair and balanced” norm within journalism. How so?

Linda Greenhouse

One of the things I chronicle in the book is the struggle that the mainstream media had with the knowledge that there was a major political candidate who seemed unable to tell the truth, and how to respond to that. So I think it was that political cycle that really put the fair and balanced norm to the test. The test being are we actually serving our readers and viewers by adhering to this? Or do we have an obligation to go deeper and share with the readers what we actually know — which is that there is one side of the story that is valid, and another side that is made up?

Eric Allen Been

You also say the “authoritative voice” is another journalistic norm that is, as you write, “easily exploited by those who understand the media better than the media understands itself.” What do these so-called experts, such as professors and political pundits, understand about the media?

Linda Greenhouse

They know that there is a great felt need in the media to get that authoritative voice. It's a distancing mechanism. It protects the actual reporter from having to put forward an analytical conclusion. And if you can quote somebody that has a title like “professor,” whether that professor actually knows anything specific about the subject of the day's news seems kind of irrelevant.

I think it's great to turn to experts when they really are experts, when their expertise is directly relevant. But just to reach out for somebody with a title is often an attempt to shield the reporter from having to do the heavy work of gaining the expertise themselves and being able convey it. I think it’s sort of a lazy man's way out.

Eric Allen Been

Another journalistic technique that you take issue with in the book is false equivalence. How does this ill serve the audience?

Linda Greenhouse

One example I give is the whole voter ID debate. So some people say we need voter ID because there's so much fraud at the polls. But the fact of the matter is to the extent that there is any fraud at the polls, it's not the kind of fraud that a voter ID requirement would help deter. So to just put it out there that one side says this and the other side says that, as if they are equivalently close to reality, does not serve the reader and the purpose of journalism, I think.

Eric Allen Been

Can you unpack why you maintain that the opposite of objectivity is not partisanship, or that it shouldn’t be?

Linda Greenhouse

I don't have a problem with objectivity, I have a problem with the false patina of objectivity that comes from these various lazy habits that journalists sometime use. So the opposite of false objectivity should be analytical rigor and leveling with the reader and letting the reader know what you know. That has nothing to do with partisanship.

Eric Allen Been

​Almost every Times reporter who shifts to opinion writing, including yourself, has turned out to be a liberal. Does that prove conservative charges of bias at the paper?

Linda Greenhouse

I haven't conducted such a survey of reporters turned opinion writers, and I don't think it proves anything. "Bias" is a very odd word in this context. Were these former reporters exhibiting "bias" in their straight reporting careers? If not, who cares?

Eric Allen Been

You say that there are new demands for truth telling. It was a big deal when the New York Times chose to use the word “lie” to describe Trump’s falsehoods. Why do you think the media has been traditionally resistant to using the word “lie”?

Linda Greenhouse

It's certainly not a word that should be slung around casually, because a lie, if I understand the English language properly, implies intent — an intentional relaying of something that the speaker knows is not true. That's different from a mistake or a lapse or a delusion. You want to reserve the word lie for when you have reason to think that the speaker is actually deliberately seeking to misinform.

A lie is a very loaded accusation, just like "bias." I don't think it should be used when journalists "believe" someone is lying. I think it should be used only when there is demonstrable proof.

Eric Allen Been is a freelance writer who has written for the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, Vice, Harvard's Nieman Journalism Lab, the New Republic, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and TheAtlantic.com.



Source: The most respected Supreme Court reporter of her generation slams media “objectivity”

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