By Linda Green­house, Har­vard Univer­sity Press, 169 pages

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - Just a Jour­nal­ist, York Times, York Times’ The New The New Wash­ing­ton Post Times’

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

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