Fallout from Linda Greenhouse Speech Trashing Bushies, 'Fundamentalism'

David Folkenflik's NPR story on the crying-at-Simon-and-Garfunkel speech at Harvard in June by New York Times Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse displayed a stunned Daniel Okrent, the first Times "public editor"; a troubled editor of the Oregonian newspaper; a supportive Jack Nelson, her former "Washington Week" colleague on PBS, who admits he wouldn't be as supportive if Greenhouse were spouting pro-Bush sentiments; and a set of Times editors who will not comment on the record. Chickens.

Folkenflik's story on NPR.org (not an exact match with the story aired on NPR Tuesday) claimed that "charged commentary" wasn't common in our mainstream media:

Such charged commentary can be found almost anywhere you turn these days -- except from hard news reporters. Daniel Okrent was the Times' first public editor -- or in-house journalism critic. He says he is amazed by Greenhouse's remarks.

"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," Okrent says.

Charges of media bias are routinely thrown at the Times and other media outlets, from both the left and the right. Okrent says he never received a single complaint about bias in Greenhouse's coverage. He wonders whether journalists really need to smother their private beliefs to be fair in their articles.

I find that hard to believe that no one ever complained about a Greenhouse article or statement. It's not like TimesWatch has never complained. But a Nexis search does show that Okrent never wrote about Greenhouse in the newspaper. From there, Folkenflik goes to more media establishment types for comment:

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.

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

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.

The New York Times ethics policy bans political activism by its journalists and advises them not to say things on television they could not publish in the paper. But it doesn't appear to address this precise situation.

Rowe says the reputation of Greenhouse's newspaper is at stake when the reporter expresses her strong beliefs publicly.

Greenhouse "was asked to speak, as wonderful as she is, because she works for The New York Times. In that situation, any of us has to be careful between our own personal views -- which we no doubt have -- and whether it casts doubt on our own work or on the credibility of the institution we represent."

Top New York Times editors Bill Keller and Jill Abramson declined to be interviewed for this story.

Here we are again, with Keller & Co. failing to address internal matters with the rest of the press, just as they did on the NSA-terror-surveillance leaks. Can anyone ever tolerate a Times staffer showing umbrage at "no comment" responses from any other public figure or institution?

It's interesting that Folkenflik never engages professional media critics outside the newsroom -- not only ideological media-watchdog groups, but even more unaffiliated media critics, from Jeff Jarvis to Jack Shafer to Jay Rosen.

Update 15:41 by Matthew Sheffield. Okrent's apparent obliviousness toward charges of bias against Greenhouse is mystifying considering that a federal appeals court judge coined the term "Greenhouse effect" to refer to a conservative jurist moving leftward throughout his career in pursuit of good press and favorable elite opinion.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis