Why not hire O.J. as the crime reporter?

simonand garfunkelIf you had a reporter who was an abortion-rights activist, spoke publicly against religious conservatives and George Bush, and wept openly at a recent Simon and Garfunkel concert, what beat would you assign her?

Certainly not music — and certainly not the Supreme Court, right?

Think again. The New York Times has no problem at all with keeping Linda Greenhouse in just that plum beat.

Ever since she marched in a 1989 abortion-rights rally, readers who don’t share her political opinions have questioned Greenhouse’s coverage of politically divisive court rulings.

NPR’s awesomely named David Folkenflik had a fascinating story on All Things Considered that raises new issues arising from a June speech Greenhouse gave at Harvard:

Greenhouse went on to charge 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 Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Haditha and other places around the world — [such as] the U.S. Congress.”

She also observed a “sustained assault on women’s reproductive freedom and the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism. To say that these last few years have been dispiriting is an understatement.”

A few weeks after that speech, the Supreme Court knocked down some of the government’s assertion of executive powers involving detainees at Guantanamo. And the court will soon hear arguments in an abortion case.

I think it’s interesting that this speech was given in June to 800 people and the first most anyone has heard about it is months later. Greenhouse’s political biases aren’t exactly hidden, but it is also surprising that she’s this open about her leftist views.

I noted problems Greenhouse had in covering a January abortion ruling, but her personal biases aren’t necessarily reflected in her coverage.

Still, it’s hard to imagine a reporter with similarly extreme conservative views having such a plum position at the Times or winning a Pulitzer.

Folkenflik’s piece had a few other great nuggets:

Sandy Rowe, editor of the Oregonian and a past chairwoman of the executive committee of the Pulitzer Prize board. Rowe praises Greenhouse’s work — but questions her judgment.

“If she or any other reporter stakes out a strong position on an issue that is still evolving both in society and before the courts, yes, I think that is problematic,” Rowe says.

Greenhouse tells NPR, “I said what I said in a public place. Let the chips fall where they may.”

Again, can anyone imagine where the chips would fall for a New York Times Supreme Court reporter who equated abortion to murder?

Jack Nelson, former Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, blanches at hearing of Greenhouse’s remarks, but agrees with her tough critique of the White House.

“If I was the Washington bureau chief and she was my Supreme Court reporter, I might have to answer to the editors in L.A. for that,” Nelson says. “But I would do my best to support her.”

Asked if he would defend Greenhouse had she said something he disagreed with, however, Nelson laughed — and said he would take issue if she had backed Bush policy.

What is Jack Nelson thinking? He would support reporters who expressed one bias but not another? People who’ve read surveys of reporters personal political views aren’t necessarily surprised by such statements, but shouldn’t these people be keeping these things secret?

Anyway, great story idea. It will be interesting to see if Times editors take any action here.

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  • Michael

    Isn’t the question whether her biases influence her reporting. And I mean REALLY influence her reporting, and not just because Brent Bozell thinks it’s so. Since the perception of bias is shaped by ones opinion to the contrary, it’s hard to know whether she is able to be fair in her reporting. Are you fair in your reporting despite your conservative views? Is Terry fair in his reporting despite his conservative views? Am I able to be fair in my reporting despite my liberal views?

    Someone as high profile as Greenhouse is going to be under a microscope and her reporting has long been considered to be slanted by those on the right and those who like to criticize the NYT. That said, I do find it suprising she would be this open about her views. OTOH, she’s likely on the backend of her career and she may think she has nothing to lose.

  • Dan

    I’m as pro-life as they come, and I have no respect for either the New York Times or the LA Times (I will never forgive the LA Times for Tracy Wilkinson’s malicious and/or ignorant coverage of the Pope’s Regensberg address), but I don’t find it particularly notable that Linda Greenhouse marched in a pro-abortion rally. How would it make any difference if she didn’t attend but had the same sentiments? How would staying silent about what she feels promote objectivity? Doesn’t it in fact serve the interests of full disclosure for her to display openly her biases? In any event, even if she had never marched in a pro-abortion rally it would hardly come as a surprise that she is pro-abortion.

  • Dan

    On a separate topic, why was she crying at the Simon and Garfunkel concert?

  • Dennis Colby

    Michael,

    I agree that the question is whether the bias influences her reporting, but it’s ridiculous to march in rallies for a cause and give partisan speeches and still expect to be taken seriously as a journalist. In every newsroom I’ve ever worked in, either of those would at the very least result in disciplinary action.

    As my father always said, “You don’t hire the elephants to cover the circus.” The question for Linda Greenhouse, Pulitzer or no, is whether she wants to be a journalist or an advocate. From the looks of it, she’s trying to have it both ways.

  • Andrew

    I am so glad you caught that story. I heard it while driving home yesterday and was suprised by the audacity more than the reality.

    It illustrates the post-modern dilemma of information. It is impossible to widely disseminate primary source information. In theory, news is attempting to make primary source information available for consumption. But there is a trust in that. A story like this either breaks the trust or re-defines the trust. “How can I believe that I will get a true glimpse of primary source information (or what really happened) through such a lense?” The post-modern answer is to find voices they trust with beliefs they trust because they can’t believe they can trust any of those voices to be objective conduits. I imagine, this reporter serves as such a voice for many of the NYTimes readers.
    In many ways I agree with Michael’s post and I look to this site because I have grown to trust its questions and its perspective. But I understand it to be commentary and not news.

  • Michael

    but it’s ridiculous to march in rallies for a cause and give partisan speeches and still expect to be taken seriously as a journalist. In every newsroom I’ve ever worked in, either of those would at the very least result in disciplinary action.

    Fair enough. Heck, we are encouraged not to give money to political candidates or advocacy groups if they possibly intersect things we write about.

  • http://www.stpaulspots.blogspot.com/ Don Neuendorf

    Why would she cry at a Simon and Garfunkel concert?! Heck, I almost cried when I saw the photo of that album cover. It made me feel so old to remember that I used to own that album, back when I still had something on which to play vinyl records.

    Probably she was listening to those immortal lines “lie la lie, lie la lie lie lie la lie, lie la lie…” and she thought of all the terrible things that had happened because of The Usurper President’s lies over the last 6 years.

    As discouraged as I sometimes get these days, you gotta admit that life is tough for liberals.

  • http://www.anotherthink.com Charlie

    In the same vein, Howard Kurtz of the WaPo noted this in his Sep 25 “Media Notes” blog:

    The “mainstream media presents itself as unbiased, when in fact there are built into it many biases, and they are overwhelmingly to the left.”

    The man who made that comment is not some rabid right-wing critic but Thomas Edsall, a Washington Post political reporter for a quarter-century who recently accepted an early retirement offer.

    In an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, Edsall said he is pro-choice on abortion and does not think he has ever voted for a Republican presidential candidate. He said he believes that reporters vote Democratic by somewhere between 15 to 1 and 25 to 1.

    Hewitt went on in his interview to praise Edsall for his honesty. I wonder if journalists are becoming more accepting of taking advocacy positions in their writing, and if editors are becoming less interested in neutrality.

  • Michael

    Or was Edsall playing to his audience. When you go on Hewitt’s show, you are expected to trot out anti-liberal comments because Hewitt prompts them.

  • Charlie

    I’m sorry, but I would MUCH rathwer have a reporter who wears their biases openly than one who hides them-or worse, one who has no opinions.

  • http://www.anotherthink.com Charlie

    “I’m sorry, but I would MUCH rathwer…”

    This comment was made by another Charlie, not me. It’s distressing to think there could be more than one Charlie making comments on this blog.

    Michael: I’m not sure why Edsall, a liberal, would be trotting out anti-liberal comments. I heard part of the interview and it sounded to me like he was expressing his genuine opinions about his observations of bias.

  • Michael

    Edsall is a liberal in the same way that Andrew Sullivan is a liberal. Just because he writes for the contrrarian New Republic doesn’t make him a liberal. He’s made a career of critiquing liberalism while being fairly soft on conservatism. I’m not really sure what that makes him.

  • Dan

    Don Neuendorf’s explanation of why Linda Greenhouse was crying at the concert is very plausible. I wish it were though that Paul Simon sang “Mother and Child Reunion” and Linda burst out crying when she suddenly realized how terribly wrong it is for a mother to have her unborn child killed.

  • astorian

    Actually, Dan, Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion” was inspired by the name of a dish on a Chinese restaurant menu. Simon asked the waiter what that dish was, and was told it consisted of chicken and scrambled eggs.

    Chicken=mother, egg=child… sick joke, I know, but it made Simon laugh, and gave him the idea for a song.