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JUST A JOURNALIST: On the Press, Life, and the Spaces Between

By Linda Greenhouse. Harvard University Press. 169 pp. $22.95

Linda Greenhouse, who stepped down in 2008 after decades as the Supreme Court reporter for the New York Times, calls herself an “accidental activist” in the cause of breaking barriers between the role of journalist and that of citizen. But after reading her new book, “Just a Journalist,” I think only half of the description really holds.

Greenhouse is indeed an activist. There just doesn’t seem to be much accidental about it.

(Harvard University Press)

It’s a good moment for works examining the practices and conventions of American political journalism. News organizations are covering a president whose rhetoric mixes brazen falsehoods with incessant attacks on the integrity of the press. During his campaign and even more so since taking office, Trump has openly vilified journalists and sought to delegitimize the industry. While major news outlets tirelessly report on the new administration’s policies, fact-check the president’s misstatements and investigate Russian interference in the 2016 campaign, they also consider how far they can go in calling out the White House and fret over what views journalists can express about the president on social media.

Greenhouse looks upon her old colleagues in the fray and seems thrilled. “I watched with fascination as editors and reporters struggled with how to respond to Donald J. Trump’s exaggerations and outright lies,” she writes. “It was with relief that I saw loyalty to the old rules erode and eventually buckle as editors and writers met their higher obligation to tell their audiences the truth as they understood it.”

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She feels relieved, however, because she argues that journalists ill-serve their audience with some of their profession’s habits and techniques. Among these are “false equivalence,”  or the equal presentation of positions of unequal merit merely for the sake of balance. (She cites coverage of the health risks of childhood vaccines, for example, as a case where false equivalence obscures the fact that “one side is correct and the other mistaken.”) Greenhouse also decries the “distancing techniques” journalists deploy, such as when a reporter writes that Fox News has “a reputation” for conservative programming, rather than simply branding it a conservative news organization. And she cites New York University media critic Jay Rosen’s argument against the journalistic “view from nowhere,” the tone and approach of middle-of-the-road impartiality that seeks to preempt accusations of bias.

None of these criticisms is especially novel, at least not to anyone following journalism debates in recent years, particularly since the latest presidential campaign. (“But what about her emails?” has become Twitter shorthand for false equivalence.) Greenhouse’s book began as a series of lectures she delivered at Harvard University in 2015, and she admits that at the time Trump seemed such an implausible candidate that “I took no account of how mainstream journalism was treating him.”

So the book feels oddly dated, even if Greenhouse now contends that the news media’s zealous treatment of Trump has retroactively validated her arguments. She illustrates those arguments primarily with examples from the New York Times — not because she believes that the newspaper is an overly egregious offender but because, in a condition afflicting more than one Times veteran, she seems to regard it as the only paper that matters.

Greenhouse highlights the Times’ overreliance on go-to experts — a law professor here, a former Reagan administration official there — who may not offer truly relevant expertise or who simply provide reliable partisanship for reporters in a hurry. She names these experts yet declines to name the reporters who abuse them. “He was the one who called back in time for deadline,” is a typical excuse she hears. More insidious, in her view, are those who compulsively reach out to two predictable sides to balance a story. Given that one article draft already contained criticisms of U.S. national security policies, a reporter tells her, “I thought it would be unfair not to make the opposite point.”

Such conventions drive Greenhouse nuts, and she rightly points out that they aren’t just lazy but also self-defeating. “While journalists may assume they are abiding by a professional code of neutrality in letting both sides have their say,” she argues, “what they are actually doing is something most journalists pride themselves on avoiding: deferring to power.”

Greenhouse takes pride in not having deferred to newsroom powers during her career at the Times. Much of the book is devoted to relitigating episodes when the author violated ethical norms that she found superfluous.

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In a 2006 speech for alums of Harvard’s Radcliffe College, Greenhouse criticized the “law-free zones” that the George W. Bush administration had erected at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, and declared that religious fundamentalism was hijacking public policy. (“I don’t have to explain myself to you,” she replied when an NPR reporter called her about it.) In remarks at a 2008 fundraiser that honored former New York governor Hugh Carey — an event Greenhouse forked over several hundred dollars to attend — she declared Carey “the finest public servant I had ever known.” She knew she had “crossed a line,” she admits, but she felt a “thrill” at her transgression.

Greenhouse also revisits her participation in a 1989 march for reproductive rights on the Mall in Washington, an event that, as the Supreme Court reporter, she was not covering for the paper. She informed colleagues and managers that she was going and says no one warned her against it. When her presence became the subject of coverage in The Washington Post, Greenhouse’s boss, Washington bureau chief Howell Raines, consulted with the honchos in New York and told Greenhouse she would have to apologize publicly. Except she wasn’t sorry. “The person I felt sorry for was Raines, who was unable to summon the will to defend me,” she writes.

Her rationale for marching, she explains, is that she did not do so in her capacity as a journalist. “I decided I would just go as a citizen,” she writes. It is the same explanation she gives for her remarks about Carey. “I wasn’t there as a reporter,” Greenhouse emphasizes. “I had paid my own way to attend the dinner as a citizen. So it was as a citizen that I spoke.” And she acknowledges that for decades she made monthly donations to Planned Parenthood, even while reporting on the Supreme Court. “It was important to me to write a check every month and sign my name,” she writes. “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.”

Greenhouse begins her book explaining that her purpose is to explore the relationship between journalist and citizen, and to “question whether prevailing norms fix too rigid a boundary between the two roles.” Yet she constantly affirms that boundary. Report on Supreme Court decisions on abortion rights for the New York Times? That’s Greenhouse the journalist. March for reproductive rights and donate to Planned Parenthood? That’s Greenhouse the citizen. Rather than meld her identities, she dons or sheds them whenever convenient.

“Just a Journalist” includes memorable autobiographical moments, offering an impressionistic history of the late-20th-century New York Times. Despite office politics that she describes as “poisonous,” Greenhouse broke barriers at the paper, becoming the first female reporter to cover politics in Albany. But she still faced double standards and dismissiveness. She didn’t get a raise when she became bureau chief in Albany (“we’ve looked into it and we have decided that you’re making enough,” an editor explained), and when she plucked up the guts to ask metro editor Arthur Gelb if she was a good writer, his answer was simple: “Not particularly.”

Still, I kept hoping for a strident defense of the independence of the journalist as a full individual, of the ability to hold personal convictions while reporting authoritatively on the events of the day. But this position is more stated than argued. Later, when she became a New York Times opinion writer, an online commenter wondered if the partisan views Greenhouse was then expressing had ever affected her straight news reporting. Unfortunately, she brings up the question merely to denigrate it. “Maybe the commenter was actually familiar with my ‘straight’ reporting work, although I doubt it,” she writes. “But now that he had unmasked me as an opinionated pundit, he felt free to impugn all of it.”

Perhaps using those 2015 lectures as the basis for this book was too constraining. There is much more to say here, more cases to argue and terrain to cover. Greenhouse is a journalist, certainly. But she is not just one.

Follow Carlos Lozada on Twitter and read his latest book reviews, including:

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