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Personal, Political And Reportable

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How journalists' personal views may or may not color their reporting is an issue that arises often these days. In the past, we've looked at the questions – and the consequences – that come up when reporters personal views are aired in public venues, and how that might affect the audience's perception of the fairness of their reporting. Yesterday, NPR's David Folkenflik brought another story that addresses those questions. Pulitzer Prize-winning Supreme Court reporter for the New York Times, Linda Greenhouse, offered some personal views on a few of the more controversial issues facing the Supreme court during a speech at Harvard University. Writes Folkenflik:
[Greenhouse] reminisced a bit about the 1960s idealism that defined her college years, and told an audience of 800 she had wept at a Simon and Garfunkel concert when she was struck by the unfulfilled promise of her own generation.

Greenhouse went on to charge that since then, the U.S. 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 -- [such as] the U.S. Congress."

She also observed a "sustained assault on women's reproductive freedom and the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism. To say that these last few years have been dispiriting is an understatement."

A few weeks after that speech, the Supreme Court knocked down some of the government's assertion of executive powers involving detainees at Guantanamo. And the court will soon hear arguments in an abortion case.

A host of critics questioned Greenhouse's judgment in airing her personal views on the very matters that she covers for the Times. Former Times public editor Daniel Okrent told NPR:
"It's been a basic tenet of journalism ... that the reporter's ideology [has] to be suppressed and submerged, so the reader has absolute confidence that what he or she is reading is not colored by previous views."
Greenhouse responded to NPR's queries with this: "I said what I said in a public place. Let the chips fall where they may." As far as the Times ethics policy goes, "political activism by its journalists" is banned and the paper "advises them not to say things on television they could not publish in the paper. But it doesn't appear to address this precise situation."

So where is the line drawn? Okrent told NPR he had never received complaints of bias about Greenhouse's reporting, but has the way she's publicly shared her views on the issues that she covers for the paper going to have an effect on how readers interpret her work? Should she have to consider that anytime she expresses an opinion publicly? Or is this all part of the new "transparency"?

UPDATE: PE reader (and frequent commenter) Joyce West writes in to draw our attention to a recent obituary in the Kentucky Herald Leader for John Ed Pearce, Pulitzer Prize winner and an "elder statesman of journalism in Kentucky," who died recently at 89. West points out that some of the issues raised in the Greenhouse story are echoed in aspects of Pearce's professional life.

Pearce "not only wrote about Kentucky politics, he participated in them," wrote the Herald Leader, as a speechwriter for gubernatorial candidate Bert Combs in 1959 – while he was an editorial writer for the Courier-Journal of Louisville. "Combs' political foe, A.B. 'Happy' Chandler, talked about how Mr. Pearce would write a speech for Combs, then write an editorial praising the speech," says the obituary, "But Mr. Pearce said his work for Combs did not keep him from criticizing the politician in The Courier-Journal."

Nonetheless, when Barry Bingham Jr. took over the Courier Journal in 1971, Pearce was moved to the paper's magazine, because Bingham considered Pearce's duality a conflict of interest.

Pearce later wrote in his memoirs, the Herald Leader notes, that participation in both politics and journalism was widely accepted. "But a new group was coming along to whom objectivity was a shibboleth and avoidance of conflict of interest an obsession," he wrote. "And they were probably right. Objectivity is a rare talent, but I am not sure it is always a virtue."

Joyce West raises some interesting points about this story and its validity today that we thought were well worth quoting here:

The article does point out that Pearce later was quite critical of Governor Combs. Pearce's conflict of interest was public knowledge, as were the politics of the Bingham family, yet the newspaper survived and even thrived. It was a different era, of course.

All journalists have opinions, but you have to know enough of the person's character to realize you can trust them to be honest in their reporting despite their biases. Maybe the public finds it's not objectivity that is lacking, but character. That's really even more disturbing. Is transparency becoming a way to demonstrate character? Isn't that a shortcut for a process that takes much longer than most media have these days?

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