Don't shoot the messenger

gun mailboxNew York Times Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse is not a stranger to her paper's public editor column. In October 2006, former public editor Byron Calame discussed the problems that arose out of a speech she gave at Harvard University the previous June. That was the speech where she expressed some of her liberal political views, including:

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

And so on and so forth. Greenhouse has been public about her support of abortion rights and her articles are frequently biased in favor of abortion rights supporters -- something we've discussed here frequently and at length. Anyway, when Calame asked her about her opinions, she told him they weren't opinions -- they were "statements of fact" that would be allowed to appear in any Times news article. That's right -- the New York Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning Supreme Court reporter is unable to distinguish between her opinions and facts.

Greenhouse made it back into the public editor column last week. New public editor Clark Hoyt admitted that the paper had mishandled her conflict of interest in reporting on some Supreme Court cases. The paper should have clued readers into the fact her husband, a vocal critic of the Bush administration, had filed amicus briefs in cases she covered. The conflict of interest has nothing to do with religion but so many religious issues are covered by Greenhouse that we can't ignore this latest ethical problem.

This latest kerfuffle also reinforces some things that do interest us here. That Greenhouse's critics find her unbelievably biased is not news. That Greenhouse's fans love her reporting is also not news. That these two camps' political views happen to differ markedly is probably not surprising to anyone. I think that if the Times is going to keep a reporter like Greenhouse -- with all of her conflicts of interest, inability to distinguish between fact and opinion, and liberal biases and passions -- they should just hire someone who can represent the folks who don't share her views. You know, the religious fundamentalists who are hijacking public policy and the people who love sustained assaults on women's reproductive freedoms. The two reporters could then cover the Supreme Court from different perspectives and the readers would get a much broader understanding of the court, its opinions, and the impact they have on society.

You know, maybe if the Times had reporters who actually didn't think so poorly of pro-lifers, they would have run a story in yesterday's paper about the March for Life. Greenhouse used to march in abortion rights marches before her editors suggested she refrain from that. The March for Life is kind of like that -- only with people who oppose abortion instead of support it. It's an annual occurrence on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade so maybe the assignment desk can remember that for next year. For what it's worth, the paper did post a bland wire report about the march at some point the day following the march.

WhelanAnother issue is how the Times handles criticism of Greenhouse. I was shocked when I read in Calame's 2006 column that Greenhouse's work "has produced few complaints to the public editor." Greenhouse has to be one of the most controversial reporters at the Times. Without doing a qualitative analysis, I feel confident saying I've written about my problems with her more than any single other reporter. Part of that is because of her high profile and part of that is due to her slanted reporting. Having said that, it's true that I've never written to the public editor about her. But now I know I never will.

Here's why. The man who brought his complaints about Greenhouse to the public editor was needlessly attacked in the column, even while his complaints were upheld. That man is Ed Whelan (pictured), the head of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He revealed and commented on Greenhouse's undisclosed conflicts of interest at Bench Memos, a law blog run by National Review Online (where my husband works). Whelan himself is an attorney and former Supreme Court law clerk. Whelan responded to the attack here:

Let's start with some background. Hoyt states early on that I "take frequent shots at Greenhouse." Well, let's see. In the 32 months that I've been blogging on Bench Memos, I've written--apart from the several posts in which I address Greenhouse's conflict of interest--a grand total of 15 posts that include her name (out of a total of more than 1000 posts).

Hoyt's other attacks are similarly without merit. He said that Whelan's "increasingly intemperate and personal attacks" felt like bullying. I read everything he wrote about Greenhouse 's conflict of interest and while temperance is somewhat subjective, I saw nothing intemperate and certainly no personal attacks. Every single mention of Greenhouse related to her profession. Hoyt's attacks -- and Whelan's rebuttal -- go on.

If newspapers want to engage their readers, they shouldn't attack those who want better from them.

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