Greenhouse Effect: Bias, Lies And What We Know

It would be a jarring headline anywhere but Vox.

The most respected Supreme Court reporter of her generation slams media “objectivity”

Even if it was true, it’s so utterly lacking in humility that it would be shameful anywhere else. But there’s no shame at Vox. As for the subject of this headline, Linda Greenhouse, her accomplishments demand no such hype.

Greenhouse covered the Supreme Court for the New York Times for “nearly three decades.” She won a Pulitzer Prize “for her consistently illuminating coverage of the United States Supreme Court.” She’s not a lawyer, yet she’s now the “journalist in residence” at Yale Law School, whatever that means. 

Over the years, she’s had some issues, suspensions for violating the house rules by creating the appearance of bias by marching for abortion and contributing to Planned Parenthood. Her offenses were trivial and wholly unsurprising, and contrary to the Times’ Conflict of Interest stance, more transparent than believing in things that were hidden under the rug. Greenhouse supported basic liberal causes like choice. Were readers supposed to believe otherwise?

But after hyping her through the roof in the headline, Eric Allen Been interviews this Dean of Legal Journalism, like a child seeking adult permission to eat forbidden candy.

Eric Allen Been: You argue that the boundaries between a journalist and a private citizen are “too rigid.” Why do you think that’s the case?

Linda Greenhouse: Well, I think it’s unduly rigid right now. There’s sort of a spasm of sanctimony that has overtaken the mainstream media in recent years. Why do I think that is? I think the worst thing that anybody can say — the worst, the most threatening insults that anybody can hurl at the mainstream media — are, “You’re biased. You’re not objective.” And so how do you show that you’re not biased? You have two sides to every story, whether the story really has two sides or not.

This is a takedown of the old style of balanced reporting, where a reporter was expected to present two sides to every story, even if there was no other side or the other side was completely false. Failure to include the false side was viewed as biased and unbalanced, while presentation of the false side without further comment left the reader with the impression that reporters would indiscriminately print any lie proffered.

For obvious reasons, this rule of journalism had its flaws. It allowed false equivalencies, one real and the other made of whole cloth, to be presented as if they were both similarly legitimate positions. But where the question here goes, and Greenhouse follows, is to the “rigidity” of the boundaries of journalists and “private citizens” (are journalists not private citizens?). The latter can believe the moon is made of cheese, while the former is expected to present fact-based reporting.

Eric Allen Been: You write that there is a contention to be made that the coverage of the 2016 campaign amplified the faults of the “fair and balanced” norm within journalism. How so?

Linda Greenhouse: One of the things I chronicle in the book is the struggle that the mainstream media had with the knowledge that there was a major political candidate who seemed unable to tell the truth, and how to respond to that. So I think it was that political cycle that really put the fair and balanced norm to the test. The test being are we actually serving our readers and viewers by adhering to this? Or do we have an obligation to go deeper and share with the readers what we actually know — which is that there is one side of the story that is valid, and another side that is made up?

It may be that Greenhouse chose her words poorly when she said “what we actually know.” Does she mean to say “factual” versus “truth”? Does she mean by “valid” what is right and good versus wrong and bad?  Nowhere in her interview does she state that reporters should report facts. Nowhere does she even mention facts as being the goal of reporting.* But Greenhouse again asserts that reporters should convey “what you know.”

Eric Allen Been: Can you unpack why you maintain that the opposite of objectivity is not partisanship, or that it shouldn’t be?

Linda Greenhouse: I don’t have a problem with objectivity, I have a problem with the false patina of objectivity that comes from these various lazy habits that journalists sometime use. So the opposite of false objectivity should be analytical rigor and leveling with the reader and letting the reader know what you know. That has nothing to do with partisanship.

By “lazy habits,” Greenhouse refers to one of the most troubling games the reporters play, the “appeal to authority” fallacy using some random mope with the title “professor” to prove a claim by some insipid quote.

They know that there is a great felt need in the media to get that authoritative voice. It’s a distancing mechanism. It protects the actual reporter from having to put forward an analytical conclusion. And if you can quote somebody that has a title like “professor,” whether that professor actually knows anything specific about the subject of the day’s news seems kind of irrelevant.

I think it’s great to turn to experts when they really are experts, when their expertise is directly relevant. But just to reach out for somebody with a title is often an attempt to shield the reporter from having to do the heavy work of gaining the expertise themselves and being able convey it. I think it’s sort of a lazy man’s way out.

The irony here is that Greenhouse rightly condemns lazy reliance on faux attributions of expertise, but would call it “analytical rigor” for the reporter to substitute her own beliefs in their place. It’s not that gaining expertise isn’t valuable, as that enables a reporter to understand what is being reported and use the words and concepts that report it accurately. Of course, being sufficiently knowledgeable isn’t the same as expertise. At least it didn’t use to be.

But remarkably, nowhere does Greenhouse recognize that there is an option between reporting lies as truth and infusing reporting with “what you know.” What happened to the notion of reporting facts, without coloring them by artful inclusion or omission of the inconvenient ones, or surrounding nouns with colorful adjectives? Of course, Greenhouse won a Pulitzer and I didn’t, so what would I know?

*The word “fact” appears twice in the interview, neither time being for this purpose.

4 comments on “Greenhouse Effect: Bias, Lies And What We Know

  1. Dan

    So after the election cycle in which the major media abandoned any pretense of objectivity, she’s complaining about their faux objectivity? I’ll have some of whatever she’s taking, please–it must be some good stuff.

  2. B. McLeod

    “Journalist in residence” is the one you can’t get rid of. It’s after tea, but still she won’t leave.

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