Is Journalism’s Fear of Bias Worse Than Bias Itself?

Linda Greenhouse, one of America's top journalists takes aim at some of the field's worst and most outdated habits in Just a Journalist.

Just a Journalist: On the Press, Life, and the Spaces Between
Linda Greenhouse
Harvard University Press
Oct 2017

The best memoirs are those in which the authors are less interested in talking about their own lives and more in grappling with the key ideas that shaped those lives — when memoir becomes essay under a different guise, let us say. Linda Greenhouse’s Just a Journalist: On the Press, Life, and the Spaces Between isn’t exactly a memoir — it started as a series of lectures — but it might as well be described that way. The veteran New York Times journalist offers a refreshing and fearless challenge to some of journalism’s most revered — and ossified — principles, drawing from her first-hand experience.

She takes aim at the notion that journalists ought not to participate in the political world that they write about. That notion — a norm of mainstream journalism — stems from the archaic quest for a state of pure objectivity (Leonard Downie Jr., a former Washington Post editor, famously took this notion to the extreme: “I didn’t just stop voting. I stopped having even private opinions about politicians or issues so that I would have a completely open mind in supervising our coverage.”).

Greenhouse is no post-modern extremist; her concern is how strictly the line is drawn. To entirely abdicate one’s political role as a citizen can be damaging to good journalism as well, she reminds us in a series of compelling arguments and examples (the criticism she once faced for participating in a march for reproductive rights also serves as an implicit reminder that so-called objective norms are often gendered ones, in journalism as in other fields).

She also takes aim at normative interpretations of ‘balance’ in journalism; for example, the idea that journalists should present ‘both sides of the issue’. For one thing, this leads to a false equivalency, where journalists desperately looking for the ‘other side’ of an issue find a marginal idea to which they give undue prominence or focus. For another, many issues are multifaceted, and journalists all too often reduce a complex issue to two sides.

This idea of ‘balance’, coupled with looming deadlines, also opens journalists up to being taken advantage of by activists whose sole goal is to push their issue with the media. Lobbyists wind up being uncritically presented as experts or as key representatives of an issue, simply because they aggressively market themselves as such to journalists who feel they desperately need a contradictory perspective to the people they’ve just interviewed for a story (there are entire companies that now specialize in the art of getting themselves quoted by the press).

The quest for ‘balance’ also leads journalists to extraordinary efforts to avoid taking responsibility for the words they print, notes Greenhouse. Instead of saying what they believe to be the truth, journalists will struggle to remove their own analysis from the picture. This is an abdication of journalists’ responsibility to tell the truth (when the truth is, in their professional opinion, straightforward and evident). Fear of being accused of bias (which, inevitably, they will be) leads many journalists to take the easy way out and dodge their professional responsibilities. It emerges, among other ways, in the sort of linguistic gymnastics and contorted headlines that pepper many stories, or in analyses where journalists simply allow interview subjects to criticize each other, failing to provide any of their own expert analysis or interpretation to mediate, judge, or resolve the conflicting quotes. This is not always deliberate or conscious, suggests Greenhouse, but in some cases is simply a “deeply ingrained habit, an instinctive aversion to any declarative statement or description, offered on a journalist’s own authority, that might lead to a charge of partiality of “bias”.

The Trump era has proven the biggest challenge to this sort of journalism. The indisputable lies and fabrications of Trump and other politicians have finally driven some journalists and media outlets to tell it like it is and even use the long-taboo L-word in their headlines.

“Definitive journalism of this sort, an explicit refusal either to split the difference or to retreat to the shelter of ‘he said, she said,’ should be so routine and universal that there would be no reason to highlight it as particularly notable. Yet it’s distressingly rare,” writes Greenhouse. She should know. In one of her final assignments, she recounts, she referred to the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts as “a conservative court”. Despite her expert analysis, borne of decades of Supreme Court coverage, a weak-kneed editor was afraid to print her comment and requested she change it in various ways. “No, I said, I’m simply stating a fact,” writes Greenhouse. “It is a conservative court.” She eventually agreed to the compromise of calling it “a more conservative court”, mostly to save the embarrassed bureau chief who was acting as go-between. But the incident illustrates the fear that’s been inculcated in some journalists toward telling the truth like it is.

This is not just a matter of journalistic pride; It speaks quite directly to the very relevance of journalism in this day and age. In an era when facts are superlatively easy to come by, thanks to the Internet, journalists are gradually starting to realize that what really makes the discipline essential is its ability to provide substantive context, analysis, and commentary.

Drawing on the arguments of journalism professor Mitchell Stephens, Greenhouse says that “to be of value in the twenty-first century, journalism has to consist of something more than chronicling and fact-checking… Accuracy is of course essential, but it is not sufficient… Rather, what the world needs is “wisdom journalism”, which Stephens defines as journalism that “includes and even emphasizes informed, interpretive, explanatory, even opinionated takes on current events.”

What’s frustrating is that even though more and more commentators among journalists and lay public alike are willing to recognize and call out the outdated and problematic tendencies of journalists, very little actually appears to be changing in the discipline. Journalism schools continue to teach the very principles that journalists are coming under fire for.

“There is a puzzle, a disconnect between journalism practice and journalism commentary,” writes Greenhouse. “Nearly all critics of contemporary journalism point to habits that disserve readers and viewers: imposing a false equivalency on ideas of unequal merit; using distancing techniques to create semblance of neutrality; and taking the ‘view from nowhere,’ in the pungent phrase of the journalism critic Jay Rosen. And yet these practices persist, even flourish.”

“When ‘he said, she said’ journalism takes hold on a particularly contentious issue, it can distort or even shut down the kind of public debate that is critical in a democratic society.”

The final essay of Greenhouse’s book is indeed more memoir than argument, and it’s a fascinating and delightful read. Especially interesting are her reflections on how the Internet has changed the newsroom. The effects of technological speed-up on the workplace are seen in many ways, but Greenhouse emphasizes the impact it’s had on fragmenting the newsroom and alienating journalists from one another. Journalists used to animatedly discuss the latest news as they wrote it, sharing perspectives and debating the implications of the latest headlines. In addition to the sense of fulfillment and pleasure in their work that it brought journalists, it also contributed to broader levels of collective understanding and deeper insight into the issues. That intense sense of common work and common purpose is now gone, as journalists rush about in their individualized and plugged-in worlds, too busy to share with each other the way they once did. “Now, no one had time for collegiality,” laments Greenhouse.

Has this speed-up and loss of collegiality affected news consumers as well as producers? Greenhouse, who as a senior journalist was excused from some of the most onerous demands of web journalism when it arrived on the scene, suggests that it has. “None of my press room colleagues was excused from feeding the beast [Internet]. I could have done it, too… and I would have taken a certain satisfaction, I’m sure, in being both fast and right. But I’m not sure I could have been fast and deep- — or at least, not as deep as I liked to think I could be with hours, rather than minutes, at my disposal.”

Just a Journalist is a short, precise, top-notch read: illuminating about life as a journalist over the past four decades, but more importantly provocative and intellectually stimulating on some of the core issues facing journalism today. For anyone who cares about the media and its relationship to democracy, her book is a must-read. Greenhouse is a journalist par excellence, whose writing is clear, accessible, and deeply intelligent. She’s much more than “just a journalist” — she’s a public thinker with a profound grasp on some of the key values, and threats, facing our democratic society.

RATING 8 / 10