Critics Question Reporter's Airing of Personal Views The New York Times' Linda Greenhouse is considered one of the top reporters on the Supreme Court beat, with a Pulitzer to her credit. Greenhouse recently expressed strong beliefs about issues facing the court, which may complicate her job.

Critics Question Reporter's Airing of Personal Views

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Last week the New York Times ran two full pages advertising Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse as one of the best on the beat, and she has won a Pulitzer Prize.

But as NPR's David Folkenflik reports, Greenhouse recently expressed strong beliefs about some of the issues facing the justices she covers, and that may complicate her job as the court reconvenes next week.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: In June, Linda Greenhouse returned to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to be honored at Harvard. She reminisced about the 1960s idealism that defined her college years and told an audience of 800 she had wept at a Simon and Garfunkel concert when she was struck by the unfulfilled promise of her own generation.

Ms. LINDA GREENHOUSE (Pulitzer Prize winner): And of course my little crying jag occurred before we knew the worst of it, before it was clear the extent to which our 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, other places around the world, the U.S. Congress, whatever.

(Soundbite of laughter and applause)

Ms. GREENHOUSE: And let's not forget the sustained assault on women's reproductive freedom and the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism.

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. GREENHOUSE: To say that these last years have been dispiriting is an understatement.

FOLKENFLIK: Greenhouse was taking a stand on some of the most contentious issues faced by the court this year. Such charged commentary can be found almost anywhere you turn these days except from hard news reporters.

Mr. DAN OKRENT (New York Times): I was amazed by it.

FOLKENFLIK: That's Dan Okrent. He was the Times' first public editor or in-house journalism critic and he reviewed Greenhouse's remarks at NPR's request.

Mr. OKRENT: It's been a basic tenet of journalism going back to the origin of objectivity at the beginning of the 20th Century. That the reporter's ideology, philosophy, views on the issues have to be suppressed and submerged so that the reader has absolute confidence that what he or she is reading is not colored by previous views.

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

Back in 1989, Times editors rebuked Greenhouse for marching in a huge abortion rights rally in Washington. Feminist activist Eleanor Smeal appealed to protestors.

Ms. ELEANOR SMEAL (Feminist Activist): We are saying to the Supreme Court of America we will never go back again. Never, never.

FOLKENFLIK: Greenhouse wrote two dozen stories involving abortion that year, one published the same day as a Times article about her participation in the march. Sandy Rowe is editor of the Portland Oregonian and a past chairwoman of the executive committee of the Pulitzer Prize board. Rowe praises Greenhouse's work but questions her judgment.

Ms. SANDY ROWE (Portland Oregonian): If she or any other reporter stakes out a strong position on an issue that is still evolving both in society and that is before the courts, yes, I think that is problematic.

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

Jack Nelson was Washington bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times. He blanches at hearing of Greenhouse's remarks at Harvard, but agrees with her tough critique of the White House.

Mr. JACK NELSON (Los Angeles Times): 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. But I would do my best to support her.

FOLKENFLIK: If she had said something that she equally believed and you disagreed with, would you feel the same way?

Mr. NELSON: Well, it's an interesting question.

FOLKENFLIK: 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.

Sandy Rowe of the Oregonian says Greenhouse wandered into dangerous territory.

Ms. ROWE: Linda Greenhouse is who she is and was asked to speak at the graduation, as wonderful as she is, because she represents 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.

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

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.