Former New York Times ombudsman (or Public Editor) Daniel Okrent told NPR he was "amazed" by Times reporter Linda Greenhouse's speech full of liberal and feminist sentiments at Harvard in June. "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," Okrent told NPR. Now, in an interview with Newsweek's Jessica Bennett, Okrent feels the need to revise and extend his remarks. Now, Greenhouse, like a journalistic Mary Poppins, is practically perfect in every way:
NEWSWEEK: Elaborate on what you meant when you told NPR you were "amazed" by Greenhouse's comments.
Daniel Okrent: When I said that I was amazed, I was kind of amazed and thrilled. My point was that when I was at the Times for 18 months, Linda was writing about the most sensitive, divisive issues in America-those that have come before the Supreme Court. She wrote about them analytically, not quoting other experts, but stating her own analyses of why things were this way and that way and what the court meant by that-and I never received a single complaint [about her]. Which is to say that no one ever perceived any ideological bias in her work.
What does that say about journalists' ability to keep their reporting separate from their ideological views?
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. 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.
Greenhouse has been doing this for nearly three decades. Is there any reason to believe she can't keep her personal views from overflowing into her reporting?
If you can do that-writing about these things in the way that she does and maintain that [sense of objectivity]-then it seems to me that what she does in her private life is her private life. She demonstrates very clearly that no matter how strongly [she] feels about issues ... it doesn't affect the quality of her work or the way people perceive it.
Do you think Greenhouse's comments will have any affect on her readership?
You know, I give a speech about journalism and I talk a lot about my time at the Times. And I always use as an example, I say, "How many people in this room have read Linda Greenhouse?" Most of the hands go up. [And I say] "Can you tell me what she feels about any of the issues she writes about?" No one ever can. Now they'll be able to, but, so what?
Will they affect her job?
Why is this becoming an issue now, as opposed to three months ago when it happened?
Well, I guess because [NPR's] David Folkenflik flicked on the speech. I can't think of anything else.
Should she have expected some form of criticism?
I think that what she, as much as any journalist in the country, has proven is that their personal feelings do not have to color [their] work. And hers have not-provably so by the fact that in this job that I got a thousand e-mails a day about people, not one [was] about a Linda Greenhouse story.
Do you think it's a farce to pretend that media bias doesn't exist?
Obviously it exists in individuals, and it exists in institutions, but it does not exist in all individuals, and it does not exist in all institutions. It's like anything else in the world, there are those who do it right and those who do it wrong.
What does this mean for journalists who may not want to suppress their political views outside the office?
Well, that's the thing about it that's so interesting and amazing and exciting. Maybe this opens up the conversation that journalists can and should [participate].
In your experience, in what form have you dealt with similar issues?
I wrote an opinion column, so it was different for me. But in my very first column for the Times I wrote what my opinions were of the issues of the day. That I was for abortion rights, that I was for gay marriage, I went through all of my issues and said, "This is who I am. Now I'm going to write my column. Judge me by my column." But I was writing an opinion column so it was easier for me to do that.
Is this going to give ammunition to those who already charge the media has a liberal bias?
Well if so, they haven't read Linda Greenhouse. Anyone who would be persuaded by that hasn't read her work, because her work is unmatched.