Fact, not opinion

Up YoursThe New York Times' public editor, Byron Calame, devoted his last column to the case of Linda Greenhouse. She's the Supreme Court reporter who in a June speech at Harvard revealed her liberal opinions about various policy issues:

The government, Ms. Greenhouse said on the NPR audio version of her speech, "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. And let's not forget the sustained assault on women's reproductive freedom and the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism." She later added, "I feel a growing obligation to reach out across the ridiculous actual barrier that we seem about to build on the Mexican border. ..."

Calame's analysis is great. He asks how Greenhouse's speech conflicts with the paper's guidelines governing public expression of personal views by news writers. He also asks about the value of the guideline, considering the reality that reporters have personal opinions. He says Greenhouse clearly stepped across the line with her political remarks.

Times editors did nothing about Greenhouse's speech, though. That's interesting, but not nearly so interesting as Greenhouse's arrogant and disappointing response to the public editor:

Ms. Greenhouse told me she considers her remarks at Harvard to be "statements of fact" -- not opinion -- that would be allowed to appear in a Times news article. She said The Times has not suggested that she avoid writing stories on any of the topics on which she commented in June. "Any such limits would be completely preposterous," she said.

Ms. Greenhouse is bitter, unethical and untrustworthy. That's not my opinion. It's just a statement of fact.

The copy chief at my paper told me that everyone has biases and opinions and there's nothing wrong with acknowledging that. What she doesn't like, though, is when reporters say their clear biases and opinions are statements of fact. That's where personal opinions are dangerous.

Let's consider what Greenhouse is saying. She believes that her views in support of abortion are not debatable. And yet she expects us to trust her when she writes up the next Supreme Court decision on abortion. And she's so confident that she's right and anyone who disagrees with her is irrational that taking her off the story would be "completely preposterous."

Many consider Greenhouse a good reporter, and she has her Pulitzer and other awards. But this story just keeps getting worse. When I addressed it previously, I thought it pointed to the simple need for newsrooms to try to hire reporters with a variety of perspectives.

But Greenhouse's comments are unacceptable. All people, but particularly journalists, should humbly acknowledge that there are multiple views about contentious issues. It doesn't make your opinions any less valid to acknowledge legitimate differences of opinion. Quite the opposite.

Greenhouse doesn't know the difference between personal opinions and statements of fact. And that means she's not a good reporter.

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