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When Journalists Have Opinions (That Is, Always)

Yesterday, we wrote about an update to the CBS News Standards. One new development is that all personal blogs written by CBS News employees must be approved by either Linda Mason, CBS News Senior Vice President, Standards and Special Projects, or Sean McManus, the President of CBS News. "We can't have people having personal blogs venting their opinions," Mason explained.

We wanted to bring your attention to some related questions being raised at the New York Times. Byron Calame writes in his "Public Editor" column about Linda Greenhouse, the Times' Supreme Court reporter, who four months ago gave a speech at Harvard in which she said that the government "had turned its energy and attention away from upholding the rule of law and toward creating law-free zones at Guantánamo 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."

The Times ethical guidelines require reporters not to express opinions publicly beyond what they would be allowed to write in the newspaper. "It seems clear to me that Ms. Greenhouse stepped across that line during her speech," writes Calame. "Times news articles are not supposed to contain opinion. A news article containing the phrase 'the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism' would get into the paper only as a direct quote from a source."

Greenhouse argued to Calame that she was expressing "statements of fact," not opinion, which would thus be allowed in a news article.

It's not, obviously, the strongest argument. But there are some serious questions to be dealt with here, some of the same ones now being asked of CBS News. Calame writes that "as the influential Supreme Court reporter for The Times, a beat that touches nearly all areas of public policy, Ms. Greenhouse has an overriding obligation to avoid publicly expressing these kinds of personal opinions." But is that fair? Isn't it possible for a reporter to express an opinion in a speech – or, in the case of the updated CBS News standards, a blog – and still churn out unbiased work?

Daniel Okrent, the first Times Public Editor, thinks so. "There's a distinction between what a journalist may think about the issues of the day and how the journalist writes about the issues of the day," he told Newsweek. "And that's the way it ought to be. [Greenhouse's] views should not come into her work, which they don't, even though we now know that she has very strong political views." He adds that if Greenhouse can keep her personal views out of her work "then it seems to me that what she does in her private life is her private life."

Calame counters that "[b]emoaning the difficulties journalists face in being citizens strikes an old-fashioned editor like me as whining." He writes:

"Forty-plus years of newspapering haven't changed my view of journalism as a calling — as a public service — that requires sacrifices and special obligations. Keeping personal opinions out of the public realm is simply one of the obligations for those who remain committed to the importance of impartial news coverage. And if the full rights of citizenship for journalists are the issue, where should the line be drawn? Should journalists contribute money or time to political candidates?"
Well, we talked about that one yesterday too. But I'm curious – where do people come down on this one? I'm with Okrent – I think it's ridiculous to pretend that journalists don't have opinions, and I think we have to let their work speak for itself. But I can see the other side, especially at a time when partisans use every opportunity to scream bias at news organizations desperately clinging to their credibility.
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