Journalistic Disclosure

About a year ago Linda Greenhouse, Supreme Court correspondent for the New York Times, was at the center of a small media controversy. In a speech after winning the 2006 Radcliffe Institute Medalist, Ms. Greenhouse complained of a “sustained assault on women’s reproductive freedom and the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism” and that the “government 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.” This is not the first time that Greenhouse has draw attention her private positions on public issues. In 1989, she participated in an abortion rights rally, telegraphing her personal opinion on the seminal Rov v. Wade Supreme Court decision. Greenhouse’s opinions represent conventional, if pedestrian, Left-wing belief common in New York and perhaps even a more universal set of convictions at the New York Times.

At the time, Greenhouse was criticized by the Daniel Okrent, the public editor of the New York Times, for making clear the perspective she brings to her work. According to Okrent, “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.”

At that time, we supported and endorsed here Greenhouse’s freedom and even obligation, to make clear her political positions. We don’t doubt Greehouse’s sincere efforts to cover Supreme Court as professionally as she can. However, in the interest of full disclosure it is salutary that her readers now know what perspectives inform the way she views the world.

This week a similar controversy erupted when MSNBC scanned public elections records and found that of the 143 journalists they could identify, 125 had donated to Democrats and Liberal causes while only 16 gave to Republicans or Conservative causes. Even the ethics columnist from the New York Times was found contributing to According the MSNBC many news organizations were trying to crack down on such activities.

The MSNBC story was interesting first and foremost because it provided yet more evidence to buttress the general consensus that the major media lean heavily Left. The New York Times was upset at the revelations because, “Given the ease of Internet access to public records of campaign contributors, any political giving by a Times staff member would carry a great risk of feeding a false impression that the paper is taking sides.” One is left to wonder if campaign donation records were less accessible the Times would be as upset. The NY Times is worried about appearing the by taking sides. It no longer needs to worry; the side that it has chosen is now common knowledge.

We find the public disclosure of the political opinions of journalists to be a matter of necessary public transparency. If a journalist holds opinions so strongly that he or she is willing to donate to candidates and causes, it is likely that such perspectives do affect the way that he or she covers stories. Everyone has a built-in narrative of the way that the world is. There are many stories that could be reported and only a finite amount of time and effort that can be devoted. Honesty demands that stories chosen fit the world view of the reporter. If you believe that climate change is an important issue you might cover that more than crime rates. If woman’s rights issues are important to reporter, perhaps those stories will receive higher priority than stories about inflation or corruption on the city council. Even if each particular story presents both sides, the collective effect of covering certain stories more than others influences the tenor of coverage. Imagine the different perspectives conveyed if one news organizations reported every morning about the grief of a relative who had lost a soldier in Iraq and another organization provided examples of martial heroisms. All the stories presented could, within their context, be absolutely true. However, the collective effect of two different topics of coverage would be radically different.

Politicians are many times required to disclose financial interests that might affect their positions on public issues. Although there should be no law requiring such disclosure, knowledge of the politics of reporters is valuable to consumers of news.

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