A demonstration outside the Supreme Court. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)
Media critic

Linda Greenhouse has nothing to hide with respect to her charitable activities. Writing in her new book “Just a Journalist: On the Press, Life and the Spaces Between,” the former New York Times reporter notes that she wasn’t content to allow Planned Parenthood to deduct a monthly contribution from her bank account. “It was important to me to write a check every month and sign my name,” writes Greenhouse, who is now a contributing op-ed writer for the same paper. “It was the signature of a citizen. The stories that appeared under my byline, on abortion and all other subjects, were the work of a journalist. If anyone ever thought those failed to measure up to professional standards, they never told me or anyone else.”

That’s one heck of an internal firewall. Skeptics of Greenhouse’s remarkable ethical divisibility are already speaking up. “Rather than meld her identities, she dons or sheds them whenever convenient,” writes Washington Post book critic Carlos Lozada.

The New York Times itself preaches caution when making donations. “Staff members should think carefully about their own contributions to various causes, bearing in mind the need for neutrality on divisive issues,” notes a September 2004 New York Times ethics guide. “Those in doubt about contributions should consult their supervisors and the standards editor or the deputy editorial page editor.”

In “Just a Journalist,” Greenhouse describes a unique form of disclosure. The publisher of the newspaper, she notes, solicited employee contributions to the United Way. “I always contributed after checking the list of beneficiaries and seeing that Planned Parenthood was on the list,” writes Greenhouse. When she moved to Washington, Planned Parenthood was not on the list — “controversial,” she was told by someone at the United Way. Then:

I replied that I didn’t see much controversy in curbing the high teen pregnancy rate in the District of Columbia, and that I would henceforth make my own contribution directly to Planned Parenthood. I described this encounter in a letter to Arthur O. Sulzberger, the Times publisher, and posted a copy of my letter of the office bulletin board, urging colleagues to follow my example. If anyone did, they kept that knowledge to themselves.

Bill Keller served as executive editor of the New York Times from 2003 to 2011, toward the end of Greenhouse’s three-decade-long stint covering the Supreme Court (1978 to 2008). “The issue of abortion was one that we talked about a fair amount while I was editor and she was covering the Supreme Court,” says Keller. He didn’t know, however, that Greenhouse was contributing to Planned Parenthood, an organization that provides a range of services, including contraception, abortion, STI/STD testing and treatment, and cancer screening and prevention. A roaring debate focuses on what percentage of its services abortions make up. 

In any case, Planned Parenthood figured into Greenhouse’s coverage of the Supreme Court. A quick Nexis search turned up more than 100 stories over the years mentioning Planned Parenthood under her byline, though a dozen of those date from the time she moved to an opinion role at the newspaper. In 2005, for instance, she noted that Judge John G. Roberts Jr.’s confirmation hearing to be chief justice could possibly alight on the 1992 case Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, in which the court reaffirmed abortion rights. A 1994 story addresses a fight over restrictions on abortion access in Pennsylvania. A 1982 story also looks at abortion restrictions and cases involving Planned Parenthood.

“I did not know she wrote a check to Planned Parenthood every month,” said Keller. “I didn’t conduct surveillance of the charitable giving of the staff and unless somebody had brought it to my attention, there’s no reason I would have known.” That said: “I would have appreciated being told and we would have had an argument about it, I expect,” says Keller. During her tenure reporting on the Supreme Court, Greenhouse scoffed at the austere, opinion-cloaking ways of the mainstream media, such as when she participated in a 1989 abortion-rights march in Washington. Or when she knocked the Bush administration in a 2006 address for creating “law-free zones” in places like Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. “I said what I said in a public place. Let the chips fall where they may,” Greenhouse told NPR‘s David Folkenflik.

As expressed in “Just a Journalist,” Greenhouse’s response to the bias brigade is to cite the archives. Look at the work. The Erik Wemple Blog has been doing that for decades, as we grew up reading Greenhouse’s dispatches from the court. Diving into Nexis provides a reminder of why the byline stuck with us: The stories are detailed, accurate and explained in plain English. As for balance, read this Greenhouse story from 2000 to capture a fine understanding of each side’s position in a partial-birth abortion case. “Sorting out these arguments in the case, Stenberg v. Carhart, No. 99-830, will require the justices to acquaint themselves more closely with medical practice, and female anatomy, than in any abortion case to date,” wrote Greenhouse.

Would that we lived in a purist’s world where folks reach judgments about a newspaper based exclusively on story execution. We do not, says Keller. “Appearances count,” he says. “Appearances register with readers and that helps them decide whether they trust what they’re reading or not.”

Danielle Rhoades Ha, a spokeswoman for the New York Times, says that such contributions would not be an “issue” for the paper’s opinion section. And considering that Greenhouse hasn’t worked for the news side for nearly a decade — and the timing is “unclear” — the New York Times won’t be commenting on this matter, she said.