Public Editor Clark Hoyt got angry this week. Not at the Times' shoddy, statistically worthless slam of U.S. veterans that appeared on last Sunday's front page (next week, perhaps?), but at conservative Ed Whelan, for having the temerity of bringing up a possible conflict of interest involving the Times' Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse.
This controversy doesn't involve Greenhouse's own liberal advocacy - she marched at an abortion rights rally in 1989 and made a liberal rant at a college commencement address last year - but the lawyering of her husband Eugene Fidell, head of the National Institute of Military Justice.
Fidell was involved in the Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld case in 2006, named after the Yemeni detainee at Guantanamo who challenged the Bush administration's plan to try detainees before military commissions. The administration suffered a 5-3 defeat at the Supreme Court, to Greenhouse's glee. Greenhouse has failed to disclose her husband's ties to the case.
"Linda Greenhouse, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Times reporter who has covered the Supreme Court for nearly 30 years, is used to dealing with top-drawer legal authorities. But it's not always convenient that she is married to one.
"Early in 2006, Greenhouse wrote an article about briefs filed in support of an appeal by a prisoner at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, a man who was once a bodyguard and driver for Osama bin Laden. One of the two dozen briefs, not mentioned in the article, was filed by Eugene Fidell on behalf of the National Institute of Military Justice and the Bar Association of the District of Columbia. Fidell, one of the nation's foremost experts on military law, is the president of the institute and an oft-quoted critic of the Bush administration's prisoner policies. And he happens to be Greenhouse's husband.
"Last month, Greenhouse covered arguments in another major case involving Guantánamo prisoners. The institute of military justice filed a brief opposing the administration's position in that case, too. But this time, out of what Greenhouse said was 'an excess of caution,' her husband did not sign it because the case was in the court she was covering.
"A conservative blogger who takes frequent shots at Greenhouse, M. Edward Whelan III, pointed out Fidell's involvement in the cases and said it created a conflict of interest for the Times reporter.
"I read each of the dozen articles that Greenhouse has written on the two cases, and I see why Whelan chose a slippery innuendo rather than specifying instances of bias. There were not any. The articles were straightforward accounts, explaining all sides clearly and, as is customary in Greenhouse's coverage of the court, drawing on a deep knowledge of the applicable law, going back to its roots in English common law.
"Whelan is president of the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center. But his increasingly intemperate and personal attacks on Greenhouse indicate something other than a legitimate concern about ethics. They feel more like bullying."
Yet Hoyt then goes on to actually accept Whelan's point about fuller disclosure of Greenhouse's conflicts:
"But even if he cannot convincingly fault Greenhouse's coverage of the prisoner cases, and whatever his motives, Whelan has raised a real issue that has troubled newsrooms for as long as journalists have made friendships, fallen in love or otherwise had a life outside of work. 'All journalists have competing loyalties,' said Robert M. Steele, an ethics scholar at the Poynter Institute, a journalism research center in St. Petersburg, Fla."
"What would I have done differently?
"First, I would not have removed Greenhouse from the story. As Wilkins said, if The Times did that, 'we have knowingly given our readers less than our best.' But after the first conversation between Greenhouse and Taubman, The Times should have clued in readers.
"Second, I would have practiced what Steele called 'transparency with accountability,' revisiting the issue from time to time, certainly with each new case, to determine Fidell's level of participation and whether the initial decision should be reconsidered. Taubman recalls doing that, but when Baquet became bureau chief last March, he was not told of Taubman's understanding with Greenhouse. And, despite the guidelines, nobody told Craig Whitney, the standards editor.
"Finally, I think The Times should systematically disclose more about what Steele termed the intersections between the personal and professional lives of its journalists. This could be done in biographies on the newspaper's Web site. Greenhouse's biography says, 'She is married to Eugene R. Fidell, a lawyer.' That is not enough."
Executive Editor Bill Keller, sounding defensive, agreed with Hoyt but was loathe to single out Greenhouse for fear of appearing to give in to right-wingers (would he have the same qualms about giving in to leftists?).