Linda Greenhouse’s Honesty

The credibility of reporters depends on the conviction of readers that they are consuming reporting untainted by any political or personal bias. However, in many ways, such objectivity is not possible. An honest and diligent reporter will report facts as best as he or she can determine them. However, by definition reporters can only include a subset of facts, facts they consider important to the story. In addition, there are many possible stories to report upon. Reporters can only devote finite resources to those stories they consider most relevant. It is in the selection of stories to cover and facts to include that bias can seep in. This is not to disparage reporters, but to point out that they like all others synthesize facts into a story in a way informed by both their political and social outlook. Indeed, the most conscientious of reporters will bring the most of themselves into their reporting. At best, we can hope that reporters are conscious of the biases they may bring to story and use that to bring the broadest possible perspective to a story.

Daniel Okrent, the public editor of the New York Times, by contrast, argues that, “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 view.” However, if we believe that all people bring their world views to their reporting, no matter how conscientious, then obscuring a reporter’s ideology is to perpetuate the fiction that anyone can be entirely objective. If a reporter’s ideology is known and conceded, it allows readers to apply this knowledge in the assessment of a story and to decide how much weight to grant the story.

When Linda Greenhouse, the Supreme Court beat writer for the New York Times, was being honored at Harvard University, she spoke honestly. She worried that the government has “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 — [such as] the U.S. Congress.” Greenhouse’s honesty is a virtue but perhaps she should have known better than to be so conspicuously candid. While writing about the abortion decisions of the US Supreme Court in 1989, she was participating in pro-choice political rallies and subsequently admonished by the NY Times editors to avoid such political activism

One can agree or disagree with Greenhouse’s political perspective. However, her outspokenness is a service to her readers. We can weigh her coverage given her known views. This is far more truthful than if Greenhouse effectively hid her views. It is better to be clear and open about the perspective Greenhouse brings to her coverage than to mislead her readers with the illusion that she is or even could be completely objective.

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