Gray Lady struggles to get its story straight

NYT Banner YearOkay, let's recap this Linda "I am the Alpha and Omega of all things factual" Greenhouse story. When it broke in late September that New York Times Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse gave a speech that sounded more appropriate for a MoveOn organizer than a respected reporter, I wrote about the unfortunate response given by Jack Nelson, former Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. He said he would defend a reporter expressing personal opinions unless those opinions supported President Bush. And I wondered whether the Times would take any action against Greenhouse.

On Oct. 1 I voiced my support for reporters being transparent with their biases but asked whether the stunning lack of diversity in newsrooms hampered efforts to write more fairly about abortion and other conentious issues.

On Oct. 10 I looked at the public editor's treatment of the story where Greenhouse said her opinions were statements of fact. That's right, statements of fact.

And on Oct. 18 I highlighted what Greenhouse's "facts" would have looked like from an alternative perspective.

Which brings us to today's update. Craig Whitney, the assistant managing editor overseeing journalistic standards at the Times, answered reader questions this week. One of them, excerpted here, relates to the Greenhouse brouhaha (emphasis mine):

Q. . . . Is there some way to adjust NY Times policy so that a reporter of Ms. Greenhouse's standing can give opinions to an audience as long as they are labeled opinions? It is a shame for us to [lose] out on some of the deeper reflections we can get from this.

A. It is simply fatuous, I think there is no other word for it, to expect intelligent and conscientious reporters on any subject they've covered as seriously as Linda Greenhouse has covered as well as the Supreme Court to have no opinions about the issues that come before it. The requirement of fair and balanced journalism is that they keep those opinions out of the news articles they write -- to step back, not imposing their views, and, even in a news analysis, to give readers enough factual information to decide for themselves whether or not they agree with the reporter's view. . . .

Linda Greenhouse has faced, for one paragraph in a very thoughtful and stimulating speech that she thought she was giving to a closed audience, attacks on her integrity that she could have avoided if she had been more reticent about what she thought. And she should have been. But her critics should be honest -- would they really rather have a dope who didn't know what she thought about the current big issues before the Supreme Court? Or only someone who agreed with their own views, whatever they are? Shame on them, if they would.

Now if Greenhouse thought it was a closed audience, why did she tell NPR the following?

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

And if Craig Whitney calls Greenhouse's liberal views "opinions" and the reader asking him the question calls them "opinions" and, for that matter, anyone with an understanding of the definition of the word "opinion" calls them "opinions" ... then why in the heck has no one at the Times dealt with Greenhouse's contention that her liberal views were anything but personal opinions?

She told the public editor at the Times that she considered her opinionated rant to be facts -- facts that could be in any news story.

So which is it -- was Greenhouse giving her opinions or offering facts? How hard should it be for the Times to pick one response and stick to it?

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