A few months into my first job as a newspaper reporter, covering the politics of three small Connecticut River Valley towns for the Middletown Press, I wrote what remains one of the best things I've ever written, but I never got credit for it. It was Christmas, December 1973, and Nixon had just unleashed an armada of B-52s to carpet-bomb North Vietnam, bombing hospitals, river dikes and residential neighborhoods. I was so outraged I wrote an editorial condemning the action as a war crime and fired it off by telex from my bureau office to my editor. The next day, my essay appeared as the lead editorial of the newspaper.
Luckily for me, my editor, the late, great Russell "Derry" D¹Oench, who had been kind of lackluster in his criticism of the war to that point, agreed with my sentiment. More importantly, while my prose in that piece was impassioned and my attack on President Nixon fervent, he never came and lectured to me about my personal politics or questioned my daily reporting.
Not so the management of the New York Times, which has lambasted veteran Supreme Court veteran Linda Greenhouse for a talk she gave to fellow Harvard alumni in which she condemned the Bush administration for creating "law-free zones" in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Haditha and elsewhere around the world, and for "assaulting women's reproductive freedom" and "hijacking public policy" in the name of "religious fundamentalism." The paper, we learn, has an "ethical guideline" saying that news staffers who appear on radio and TV "should avoid expressing views that go beyond what they would be allowed to say in the paper." (Never mind that Greenhouse wasn¹t speaking for broadcast, but at a private event at her alma mater.)
The Times ombudsman, Byron Calame, supports the newspaper in criticizing Greenhouse, writing in his Sunday column, "The Public Editor," that it "seems clear" that she "stepped across that line."
Nothing infuriates me more, as a veteran newspaper reporter, than this repressive notion that reporters must not have personal politics or personal views, or that if they do have them, they must keep them strictly to themselves.
The ideal reporter, it would seem in this pinched view of things, would be either an ignorant and insensitive boob without an opinion in her or his head, or else a robotic stenographer who simply transcribes what various sources tell her or him, giving equal weight to heartfelt truths and devious falsehoods. Either option is a recipe for disaster in terms of the role of the Fourth Estate, which is supposed to "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted," in the words of pioneer journalist Finley Peter Dunne.
What it boils down to is image over substance. The truth is that the Times knows its reporters‹and its editors and publishers--all have personal political views, often strongly held, but it doesn't want its readers to know this. It, and every news organization like it, is actually perpetrating a massive fraud on the public, pretenting that its staffmembers have no personal politics.
This is of course nonsense, and most people who give it a moment's thought know it.
So why the charade?
I would argue that most likely the real reason is fear.
Linda Greenhouse, I'm almost certain, would not have been taken to the woodshed by her bosses if she had, in her Harvard speech, decried the lack of patriotism evidenced by those who protest the war in Iraq even as our soldiers are dying there, or if she had complained of a lack of spiritual values on the part of of our governing class--in other words, if she had said exactly the opposite of that which she was criticized for saying.
Let's be honest here: it was the fact that she was criticizing the government from the left that made her a target of criticism.
And the New York Times is not alone. CNN dumped one of its best reporters, Peter Arnett, largely because he was too public in his critiques and reportorial exposés of U.S. militarism. The San Francisco Chronicle fired a columnist whose specialty was writing about technology, because he had publicly demonstrated against the Iraq War on his own time. The ranks of reporters and editors who have lost their jobs, or been shifted off of beats, because of taking political positions in their private lives that are to the left of mainstream are legion. Yet one would be hard-pressed to find reporters and editors who had lost their jobs or their beats because of expressing personal political views that are to the right--for example in support of American imperialist adventures, mindless patriotism, unfettered free market capitalism, faith-based public policy, etc.
Our corporate news media are basically afraid to be seen as institutional critics of power and the established political concensus, and yet that is precisely the role that the Constitution, in singling them out for special attention and privilege in the First Amendment, expects them to play. They cannot play the role of independent watchdog and critic if they insist on neutering their staffs. And they insult and do a disservice to their readers and viewers when they try to pretend that those staffs are devoid of political views.
Journalists, if they are doing their jobs, need to dig deeply and understand the issues and the political forces that are at work in society and in the world. In doing that--in digging for the truth--it would be incredible if they did not arrive at some personal opinions as to who was honest and well-meaning and who was dishonest and conniving. It would be incredible if they did not develop opinions as to what policies were good for society or for the world, and which were destructive.
The job of those journalists then is to present what they know with integrity and fairness. That's a tough challenge but it can be done. It won't be done, however, by reporters who are incapable of feeling, thinking for themselves, and forming their own views.
How then, is the public helped by taking those journalists who have the intelligence and good horse-sense to see or to find the truth, that they must keep that discovery to themselves? Far better, I'd say, to let reporters, on their own time, say what they think, and then let the reader or viewer make her or his own judgement as to the veracity of what those reporters tell them on the job.
My answer to the Times and to ombudsman Calame is: Free Linda Greenhouse! Free the Press!
Dave Lindorff, a 33-year veteran investigative journalist, is co-author, with Barbara Olshansky, of The Case for Impeachment: The Legal Argument for Removing President George W. Bush from Office (St. Martin's Press, June 2006).