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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Levinson on Greenhouse

Sandy Levinson has an interesting post on a speech made by New York Times Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse and the reactions it provoked.  Greenhouse, receiving an award from her alma mater, delivered a speech in which she made a variety of impassioned remarks "about our generation . . . about the culture of the times."  Along the way, she said that her generation was

. . . not doing a better job. We had not learned from the old mistakes. Our generation had not proved to be the solution. We were the problem.  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, and other places around the world. And let’s not forget the sustained assault on women’s reproductive freedom and the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism. To say that these last years have been dispiriting is an understatement.

Greenhouse also discussed the sense of "fences" lowering in women's lives over the past few decades, adding, "As I look toward the next chapter in my life, I feel a growing sense of obligation to reach across the absurd literal fence that some of our policy makers want to build on the Mexican border and to do what I can to help those whose only offense is to want to improve their lives."

When these public remarks were more widely aired, Greenhouse was publicly scolded by the Times's public editor, Byron Calame, who argued that her remarks violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the Times's policy barring reporters from expressing views on matters within their purview that "go beyond what they would be allowed to say in the paper" -- in effect, stating opinions.  Greenhouse responded to a query from Calame by saying she "considers her remarks at Harvard to be 'statements of fact' -- not opinion -- that would be allowed to appear in a Times news article.

Levinson criticizes the scolding, arguing, among other things, that "the Greenhouse comments easily fall within 'statements of fact,'" that it is absurd to suggest that Greenhouse crossed any kind of line, and that Greenhouse's editors failed to stand up for her out of "fear and trembling" as a result of a relentless attack [on it] from what is in fact a vast right-wing conspiracy that is intent on enforcing its own version of political correctness."  He wonders what chilling effect the Times editors' silence on the occasion of Greenhouse's rebuke will have when junior reporters are "asked to offer their candid opinions about what they see around them."  He acknowledges that Greenhouse is a friend and praises her work in the paper.

I have no quarrel with Levinson's praise for Greenhouse's work.  Moreover, reasonable people may differ about whether the Times should have such a policy in the first place.  Some people argue that journalists should be able to say what they want when they are off the clock.  Others argue that such policies serve newspapers' attempt to be seen as "objective," and that because journalistic objectivity is itself a myth, those policies that subserve it are also wrong.  My own view is that whether or not objectivity is an achievable goal for newspapers, newspapers are free to treat it as an aspirational goal.  Moreover, newspapers are free to enforce policies that they believe help burnish their credibility, both with the public and with the official and unofficial sources on whom they report.  I am sympathetic to the commenter to Levinson's post who observed that "[o]ne needn't always be objective in her [personal] life to be objective in her professional analysis" -- although I'm not certain why that commentator described conventional views about objectivity as "heterosexist" -- but I think newspapers are entitled to take stronger prophylactic measures if they choose, even if that means telling a reporter that he or she is not entitled to state personal opinions in public.

What startles me, though, is Greenhouse's curt and dismissive response to Calame, suggesting that she had merely engaged in "statements of fact," and Levinson's view that her comments fell easily -- not barely, or reasonably, but easily -- within that category. 

Do you agree, dear readers?  And what if she had made the following remarks:

My tears dried up, however, when I realized the strides that our generation had made.  And that became even clearer when I reflected on our President's signing of a bill that would permit interrogation of terror suspects, potentially saving many lives, while still offering a set of rules addressing and cabining the forms of permissible interrogation.  And let's not forget the renewed respect for unborn lives, the resistance to sexual license, and the belief that Christians are not banned from participation in the public square....As I look toward the next chapter in my life, I feel a growing sense of obligation to resist the absurd influx of people over a non-existent "border" that some of our policy makers want to erase, and to do what I can to help those jobless American workers whose only offense is that they are willing to respect the immigration and employment laws of their own country.

I'm not asking whether you agree more with the first, actual set of Greenhouse's remarks than with my fictional version.  As it turns out, I'm more sympathetic to the first set of hyperbolic remarks than the second, but that's beside the point.  I'm just curious: Are the second set of remarks also "statements of fact?"  Do Greenhouse's defenders agree that they would be no more objectionable than the first set?  And that neither set would raise questions about a reporter's objectivity?         


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Posted by Paul Horwitz on October 17, 2006 at 07:16 PM in Current Affairs | Permalink


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Tracked on Oct 17, 2006 9:05:42 PM

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Tracked on Oct 18, 2006 12:46:44 PM


Public Agenda's latest Confidence in U.S. Foreign Policy Index (http://www.publicagenda.org/foreignpolicy/index.cfm) shows there is a marked dissatisfaction on immigration. Nearly eight in 10 Americans give the United States low grades (http://www.publicagenda.org/foreignpolicy/foreignpolicy_reportcard.htm) for protecting U.S. borders from illegal immigration. And eight in 10 worry (http://www.publicagenda.org/foreignpolicy/foreignpolicy_worries.htm) that it may be too easy for illegal immigrants to come into the country.

Public Agenda is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group devoted to public opinion and public policy. For more information on who we are and what we do, go to http://www.publicagenda.org.

Posted by: William Hallowell | Oct 26, 2006 1:48:48 PM

sustained assault on women’s reproductive freedom is a fact.

renewed respect for unborn lives is a fuzzy, and misguided opinion.
[Fuzzy because the terms used are propaganda. Misguided because allowing the patient access to a safe and effective medical procedure if, and only if, she's at death's door is not a show of respect for the uterine wall, placenta, cord, and fetus (you know, the pregnancy).]

Posted by: ema | Oct 18, 2006 7:38:38 PM

Of course these are facts. That is why the layers and layers of fact-checkers in the NYTimes missed the fact (opinion?) that Hillary Rodham Clinton wasn't really named for Sir Edmund Hillary.

Posted by: clark | Oct 18, 2006 2:32:42 PM

What surprises me, and should surprise anyone else familiar with the New York Times, is that their definition of "facts" is anything OTHER than "opinions our reporters hold." I don't know what New York Times Calame reads, but the the idea that Greenhouse's rant "go[es] beyond what [she] would be allowed to say in the paper" strikes me as being utterly divorced from reality.

Posted by: salaryman | Oct 18, 2006 10:23:30 AM

As the 1968 generation descends into hysterical cant, it becomes easier for the newer generations to recognize how absurd their opinions (and "facts" for that matter) truly are. I say let those NY Times reporters speak up as often as they can get an audience to sit still for it. That, on the other hand, may become increasingly difficult as they are speaking to the same 10% of the population on each occasion. As the other 90% slip away, life will become increasingly difficult for the self-appointed leaders.

Posted by: Mike K | Oct 18, 2006 9:21:41 AM

Relativism in full flower. Radical feminist cant, with which I'm "relatively certain" Ms. Greenhouse is not only familiar but to some extent agrees, dismisses logic and supportive data as invalid patriarchal constructs (AKA "heterosexist."). In the radical feminist view, "facts" are what I say they are, and their validity is measurable only by the degree to which they support my viewpoint. This nonsense has spread into academia and sympathetic areas of costal culture, and it is regularly reflected back by such as Greenhouse and Levinson - who have reacted to the criticism as "sisters fighting the good fight."

Regardless of one's view of the MSM, and mine is seriously negative, what should be clear from the incident is that Greenhouse and Leveinson, et al, belong to a category of warped individualy for whom words such as "objectivity" have no traditional meaning or relevance. This is where journalism schools and the MSM have been headed for a while now, and improvement is nowhere in sight.

Posted by: Patrick | Oct 18, 2006 6:37:31 AM

Newspapers are like Quaker communes, getting old and smaller every year.

Posted by: Paul | Oct 18, 2006 6:31:26 AM

It's a bit ironic that while whining about how the government has turned its energy and attention away from upholding the rule of law and toward creating law-free zones at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Haditha, and other places around the world that Greenhouse then laments that bring the "rule of law." to the borders with the aid of a "absurd literal fence" is some how a bad thing.

Posted by: Neo | Oct 18, 2006 1:22:47 AM

In context, her generation certainly has not "learned from the old mistakes"--that is a statement of fact. The government has turned its energy and attention away from upholding the rule of law and toward creating law-free zones at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, etc.--that is a fact, not an opinion. There has been a sustained assault on women's reproductive freedom and the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism--again, fact.

Now if she'd said "women's reproductive freedom is a good thing" or "the rule of law is a good thing," that would have been a statement of opinion.

I think the most you can really say is that her opinion is implied when she mentions her tears.

Posted by: Joe | Oct 18, 2006 12:43:32 AM

Most of us tend to think that people who agree with us have a keen appreciation of fact
while people who disagree are merely spouting unsupported opinions. Post post-mod-
ernism many people no longer belive in facts at all -- I'm glad to see that Sandy is not
one of those -- but even those who do have an increasingly difficult time distinguishing
them from opinions. Perhaps the most important and saddest "fact" in this entire debate
is that Ms. Greenhouse is probably correct: her NYT editors probably would regard
opinions like the ones she expressed as statements of fact that could (because they do)
appear in news columns there.

Posted by: John Rosenberg | Oct 18, 2006 12:06:46 AM

To paraphrase an influential New York movie critic: "There is NO frickin' WAY that Nixon could have won the election. Why, I don't know a SINGLE person who voted for him!"
Shall we coin a new phrase: "the fact-based community"?

Posted by: Jim,MtnViewCA,USA | Oct 17, 2006 11:16:05 PM

y81 and chickenlittle are both correct: the bitter (and brittle!) '68ers, in their twilight, confused and angry, are taking faculty talk to the public. And the public, with the exception of a fairly thin sliver, is either ignoring them or puking. She should start blogging and get off the sinking ship of the Times while she can. At least as a blogger she can be herself.

Posted by: Isaac | Oct 17, 2006 10:22:13 PM

in this postmodern age, objectivity seems to equal what used
to pass for personal opinion. I agree that the chilling, the frightening, the portend of the future thing -- to me --
is that an apparently educated person, supposedly trained
in objectivity has bought into this perspective. The interesting thing
is that the blogasphere is increasingly acting as a balance. Many
of my faculty colleagues are dirisively dismissive of blogs, but
I suspect that they are in fact unsettled by the public challenges
to irrefutable facts (e.g., facts as presented by the MSM).

Posted by: netsailer | Oct 17, 2006 10:18:19 PM

Of course these are opinions. It's amazing to me that anyone would would seriously dispute that, but this actually reinforces my position which is that reporters for the various major media should be obligated to write similar opinion pieces on a regular basis. Not only would that help illuminate their biases and idiocies but it might actually help them as they will undoubtedly be exposed to actual feedback to their opinions, instead of the echo chamber they typically speak to.

Posted by: Jimbo | Oct 17, 2006 10:10:33 PM

The chilling part is that if she believes, truly believes that she is merely stating facts, then, when she is on the job at the NYT and, you know, ostensibly reporting facts, how in the world can she tell the difference? And why should any discerning reader (can a mere unwashed, un-college-graduated reader 'discern'?) believe anything that she writes?

And the MSM keeps wondering why ratings and circulation keep falling...

Posted by: Quixote | Oct 17, 2006 10:04:15 PM

I think this is a positive development. People like Greenhouse are begging to blog if only it paid like the NYT. It's only a matter of time before staff cuts will catch up to her and she gets her wish.

Posted by: chickenlittle | Oct 17, 2006 9:48:21 PM

Isn't Levinson's defense of Ms. Greenhouse sabotaged when he remarks that he worries on the chilling effect on reporters when "...asked to offer their candid OPINIONS(my emphasis) about what they see around them."?

Posted by: Pat Patterson | Oct 17, 2006 9:46:46 PM

Greenhouse commits a very common error - so "common", in fact, that it should be beneath someone as superior to the rabble who read her paper, etc. as she is:

she thinks her opinions are fact. Just go through it:

"not doing a better job." opinion, of course.

"We had not learned from the old mistakes." A matter of judgment, which makes it opinion.

"Our generation had not proved to be the solution." Still judgment, therefore opinion."

"We were the problem." Ditto - though I happen to share this opinion; I think Greenhouse & her 'generation' have done profound damage to America.

"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, and other places around the world."

Blatant opinion on every level.

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

Opinion again. And on the last point, particularly bigoted opinion.

"To say that these last years have been dispiriting is an understatement."

Well, I can join her in that - though for me, what I find dispiriting is that people like Greenhouse have so much influence.

Posted by: BD | Oct 17, 2006 9:44:40 PM

I shouldn't have to say this but, in case you are wondering, the above was meant tongue-in-cheek...

Posted by: Wildmonk | Oct 17, 2006 9:27:00 PM

Sir, my name is Benjamin Jowett.
If it's knowledge, then I know it.
I am the master of Balliol College.
If I don't know it, it isn't knowledge.

I think Levinson's point is that if everyone in the faculty lounge agrees on something, as surely they do, then it is a fact, and merely because some of our loser fellow citizens, who couldn't crack 700 on the LSATs, might disagree, need hardly enter into our analysis. What possible meaning could there be for the word "fact" other than the consensus of university professors?

Posted by: y81 | Oct 17, 2006 9:25:00 PM

Well, Ms. Greenhouse was simply stating truth to power. Your hypothetical statements, in contrast, are not "factual" at all but rather just the reactionary raving of a sexist defender of the partriarchical order (and racist, to boot). In any event, facts are simply attitudes dressed up in the latest fashion; more a method to bludgeon others in the pursuit of power than an objective reality.

Your hypothetical statements, not serving Ms. Greenhouse's ends, are thus not "facts" at all.

Posted by: Wildmonk | Oct 17, 2006 9:24:07 PM

Your point is very well taken. Certain "facts" that are merely opinions on controversial policy questions do indeed have a habit of becoming de jure "facts" within elite opinion. In our profession, this "conclusion of fact" became the ABA position on abortion: Debate closed.

Is it more troubling when lawyers do it, or when the most influential reporters cannot recognize that reasonable people can disagree on things and not be living outside of the "reality-based community"?

Posted by: Ron Coleman | Oct 17, 2006 9:12:06 PM

I very much liked Linda Greenhouse's speech, but it seems quite odd to defend it on the ground that it involves only "statements of fact." Of course, there are facts - - many facts - - contained in her speech. But the speech uses those facts, and uses them effectively, to express a point of view about the current state of national security affairs, inclusion of gays and lesbians in our shared community, and a number of other things. I'm not offended by nor do I disagree with anything Ms. Greenhouse expressed. And, if I ran the New York Times, I would not be concerned about the content of her speech or the forum in which she gave it. But the controversy presents squarely the question whether, and in what circumstantces, a reporter should convey publicly a point of view on controversial issues (including issues that arguably touch on that reporter's reporting); it can't be dealt with simply by saying that Ms. Greenhouse did no more than recite a series of undisputed facts.

Posted by: Brian | Oct 17, 2006 8:12:36 PM

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