By Linda Greenhouse, Harvard University Press, 169 pages
the title of Linda Greenhouse’s autobiographical account of her career at
is a bit disingenuous. Greenhouse rose through the ranks to become not just the newspaper’s Supreme Court reporter but one who brashly defended her right to publicize her views on matters that came before the court, especially pertaining to a woman’s reproductive rights. In other words, Greenhouse is not just a journalist but an unapologetically partisan one. She couldn’t have chosen a more opportune moment to tell her story, with so many of her colleagues accused of abandoning objectivity in order to serve a partisan — read: liberal — agenda like hers.
Greenhouse debunks conventional notions of objectivity, arguing that the media’s claim of “fair and balanced” coverage is too often an excuse for lazy reporting, for not getting to the bottom of something, for not calling a lie a lie, even when it comes from the president’s mouth. She cites an example of
own tendency to hedge when an editor took issue with her characterization of the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts as “conservative.” What word better sums up the tenor of the Roberts court?, she asks. Her editor would accept her wording only if the story were labeled “analysis,” a dodgy way of cloaking an uncomfortable truth as a reporter’s opinion. Not that Greenhouse didn’t have plenty of opinions — she was more than willing to express her views on matters that came before the court while she was still covering it, about the rights of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, the privacy rights of gay men and lesbians, and, above all, a woman’s right to an abortion. The author in 1989 took part in a Washington march for reproductive rights, an event in her life so fraught with public controversy, she proclaims, it has “entered the realm of journalistic mythology.” As proud as she is of her own activism, one wonders how would she react to a reporter covering women’s issues who marched in anti-abortion demonstrations, made contributions to the National Right to Life Committee and spoke openly of her partisan activities?
Greenhouse thinks reporters fret too much about bias. She writes that it’s only natural they would have opinions about matters that affect their daily lives. She was slightly aghast, as were many reporters, when Leonard Downie Jr., a former editor, famously stated that “I didn’t just stop voting, I stopped even having private opinions about politicians or issues so that I would have a completely open mind in supervising our coverage.” Should a journalist relinquish the rights and responsibilities of citizenship in order to be objective? Greenhouse understandably finds that prospect troubling.
Objectivity may seem like a quaint notion in this age of social media where opinion reigns, but it’s a slippery slope, as we are learning, from the rejection of objectivity to the repudiation of science. Greenhouse prefers the word “context” to objectivity. In her stories about the Supreme Court, she says, providing context meant explaining why each case was at the Supreme Court in the first place. “What legal or political forces, or both, had propelled it there?” she asks. “Why might the court have decided to review it? What and whose agenda did it serve?”
A story that touches all those bases, Greenhouse writes, goes a long way to achieving the goal of journalism “to empower readers to sort through the noise and come to their own informed conclusions.” But a newspaper can betray bias in any number of ways, for example, by the subjects it chooses to highlight on its front page. To someone who just arrived here from outer space, a cursory review of newspaper front pages might suggest a prosecutorial bent toward Donald Trump. If the visitor stayed here for a little while, he might understand why. Still, it is no small challenge to report unsparingly on the conduct of a president without looking like you have it in for him. Journalism schools used to teach that it is as important for reporters as it is for judges to maintain an appearance of impartiality. Does the maxim still apply? At what point do the prerogatives of citizenship — the right to speak out or demonstrate — conflict with the responsibilities of journalism? These are questions the book raises but which Greenhouse does not explore, except to say she is confident that her own biases never diminished or distorted her work. “The stories that appeared under my byline, on abortion and all other subjects, were the work of a journalist. If anyone ever thought those failed to measure up to professional standards, they never told me or anyone else.”
Greenhouse has good reason to take pride in her work. As the Supreme Court reporter for three decades, she occupied one of the loftier perches in American journalism. Yet her book feels unfinished. In carving out a role for herself as an activist journalist, she fails to make a persuasive case that the two are compatible. If objectivity is obsolete, what do we put in its place? How are journalists to regain the confidence of an increasingly skeptical public? Aside from airily assuring us that she succeeded in doing so, Greenhouse doesn’t provide an answer.
Most reporters tend to be more circumspect about their own beliefs, less likely to proclaim them in university lecture halls or from the steps of the Capitol. Greenhouse blames such diffidence on an exaggerated fear of bias. On the contrary, my experience has been that reporters are cautious because they are afraid of being wrong. Reporters who strive to keep a low profile and an open mind do so because they sense that people will be more likely to confide in them and more inclined to believe what they write.
— Frank Clifford