Accuracy in Media

New York Times reporter Linda Greenhouse, who covers the Supreme Court, has stirred up quite a debate by delivering a political diatribe disguised as a public policy speech. She has become living proof of liberal media bias, as if we needed any more proof that such a bias exists.

Although it was advertised as a speech to a group of fellow Harvard alums who were honoring her last June, she let it be known that she is an ardent feminist who sees pro-lifers as despicable human beings. She also expressed her opposition to President Bush’s foreign policy in Iraq.

Greenhouse told the group that she had attended a Simon and Garfunkel concert shortly after the war in Iraq had begun, and had found herself crying throughout the second half of the concert. She realized that it was because she now felt that she had misplaced her faith in the notion that “our generation would do a better job” and not repeat the mistakes that so concerned her during the sixties. She said, “We were not doing a better job. We had not learned from the old mistakes. Our generation had not proved to be the solution. We were the problem.”

If this is a reference to war and peace, Greenhouse must be upset because she thought that the country had learned the lesson of Vietnam-never to intervene in a noble cause again. She apparently thinks that Iraq could be better off under Saddam or the terrorists now threatening to take over the country. She’s probably not unique in the media for holding that view.

Not only did Greenhouse seem to express her opposition to how the war in Iraq has been conducted, she was disturbed with the entire global war on radical Islamic terrorism. Our government, she claimed, “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 said there had been 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.”

In response, former Times Public Editor, Daniel Okrent, flip-flopped.

Okrent, who was supposed to make sure Times reporters obeyed elementary ethical rules, told National Public Radio (NPR) that he is amazed by Greenhouse’s remarks. “It’s been a basic tenet of journalism,” said Okrent, “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.”

Later, talking to Newsweek, Okrent changed his position, saying, “There’s a distinction between what a journalist may think about the issues of the day and how the journalist writes about the issues of the day. And that’s the way it ought to be. [Greenhouse’s] views should not come into her work, which they don’t, even though we now know that she has very strong political views.”

The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz reported that Greenhouse didn’t back down, and that she defended her comments as “statements of fact” and not opinion.

While Okrent claims he never received any complaints about bias in Greenhouse’s reporting, Ed Whelan, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center believes there was a bias, as he demonstrated in this posting on National Review Online.

But when Okrent was still public editor for the Times, he made a rare admission that the Times editors and publishers would probably like to have back. In a column titled, “Is the New York Times a Liberal Paper?,” he wrote that regarding social issues, “if you think The Times plays it down the middle on any of them, you’ve been reading the paper with your eyes closed.” Defining social issues, he included “gay rights, gun control, abortion and environmental regulation, among others.”

Describing the editorial page, he wrote that it is “so thoroughly saturated in liberal theology that when it occasionally strays from that point of view the shocked yelps from the left overwhelm even the ceaseless rumble of disapproval from the right.”

All of this is supposed to be a violation of journalistic ethics.

There is a Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, one tenet of which is that Journalists should “Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.”

The Times has tossed that tenet in the trash can.

But there is a growing debate in the rest of the media over the extent to which papers should go to indicate fact versus opinion. Michael Kinsley, who started Slate.com and now writes for the left-wing British newspaper, The Guardian, argues that far too much is made of trying to pretend there is a clear line between opinion and fact.

Often, however, the issue is more subtle than that. The bias in news stories comes in many forms. It can be in the headline, in the choice of people interviewed, or in the location within a story of key points that may contradict the central thesis of the article. It can take the form of loaded words or phrases, or be through the frequency, location and timing of stories. Often it is in a blatant double standard as it is applied to liberals and conservatives.

Liberals are quick to label Fox a conservative news organization, or to just dismiss its accuracy and credibility. But compared to what? Do the same people acknowledge the left-leaning tilt of the other broadcast and cable news organizations, or just assume that they are playing it straight down the middle? This is still just the second decade in the post-Fairness Doctrine era. Prior to that, broadcasters were required to balance opinions, and they largely got around it by presuming to be, as Linda Greenhouse argues, presenting “statements of fact” and not opinions.

Before the Internet, the growth of conservative talk radio, and the Fox News Channel, Accuracy in Media was practically alone.

But certainly in the journalistic landscape of today, Linda Greenhouse hasn’t really broken any new ground. She is just another “advocacy” or “interpretive” reporter, like most of the rest of them. She’ll probably get a raise or promotion for her remarks.




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