Just a Journalist: On the Press, Life, and the Spaces Between
A number of student tickets are available. For more information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
This event took place on Thursday, January 18, 2018
JOANNE MYERS: Good evening, everyone. I'm Joanne Myers, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I would like to welcome you to this Public Affairs program.
Our guest this evening is Linda Greenhouse, and she is the author of Just a Journalist: On the Press, Life, and the Spaces Between. Just a Journalist was adapted from a series of lectures Linda delivered at Harvard in 2015, and it will be the jumping-off point for our conversation this evening.
Linda brings to this discussion over 40 years of experience working as a journalist, first as a Pulitzer Prize-winning Supreme Court reporter for The New York Times and later as a columnist there. In reading her bio, which I believe you all should have a copy of, you will note that she has been recognized many times over for her contributions to journalism. She is currently the Joseph Goldstein Lecturer in Law at Yale Law School.
In the next 30 minutes or so, Linda and I will have a conversation about the challenges facing journalists and journalism today, focusing on the hurdles journalists encounter in this fractious political landscape, and also the impact that independent journalism is having on this profession. Afterward, I will invite you all to ask any questions that you would like.
Linda, thank you for joining us.
LINDA GREENHOUSE: Thanks for having me.
JOANNE MYERS: We all know that the press is under siege these days as news organizations cover a president whose rhetoric mixes brazen falsehoods with incessant attacks on the integrity of the press, and while editors and writers want to meet their obligation to tell the truth in an objective and fair and balanced way, old rules seem to be eroding. All indications are that this is a very good moment for us to examine the practices and conventions of American political journalism.
Why don't we begin by having you talk a bit about what it means to be a journalist today?
LINDA GREENHOUSE: Actually, this book rose out of concerns I have had that predated any thought that Donald Trump might be president of the United States. For a number of years I have been speaking, writing, you might say railing, against certain conventions of mainstream journalism that in my view disable journalism from serving its best and highest purpose.
What is that purpose? It is to enable and inform citizenry to govern itself. It is giving information. It is not simply parroting what two people on different sides of a debate choose to say. If I quote somebody saying, "By the way, the moon is made of green cheese," and that person actually said it, nobody could demand a correction. It is not incorrect. But it is lacking context, it is lacking content, it is failing in its duty to say to the reader, "By the way, that's not true."
As I was working on the lectures that I gave in November of 2015, of course the campaign was starting. The deal with those lectures is we turn them into a book, Harvard University Press publishes it, and of course there was the campaign and then there was the election before my due date for the manuscript. So I had to throw out a bunch of abstract and theoretical stuff and anchor it really in an account of how the mainstream press—and it is mostly The New York Times but not exclusively—dealt with this challenge of a major political figure given to telling lies, and what do you do about that? It challenged really the DNA of mainstream journalism, which is that you don't call somebody out. You simply tell the reader what they said.
JOANNE MYERS: So then you would say that the Trump campaign really in some way has killed the notion of objectivity in the press because it is important as you say to call them out in some way, and no longer can it be fair and balanced if he is splurting out lies.
LINDA GREENHOUSE: "Fair and balanced" or "objectivity" is a trap that people who are well-paid and highly motivated and very good at manipulating the press can invoke: "Oh, my god, you're not being fair. You're not being balanced. You're not being 'objective' because you're calling us out." For many years that worked. It was very easy to stop the media in its tracks by saying: "You're not being balanced. There are two sides to every story."
Well, actually there are not two sides to every story. Some stories there is only one side: torture. Torture is a bad thing. We should not be waterboarding people. I talk a lot about the transition from being afraid of calling waterboarding torture to finally doing it.
Very complicated issues cannot be reduced to two sides. They might have 30 sides, I don't know. So the notion that there are two sides to every story and that it is the highest and best purpose of journalism to boil everything down to that, as I say, is a trap. It is a disabling trap, and I would like to think that we are getting over that.
JOANNE MYERS: With Donald Trump there is someone who—
LINDA GREENHOUSE: I end the book by saying: "Okay, has anything changed fundamentally? Will these changes that I chronicle and applaud outlast Donald Trump?" You could say, "Will any of us outlast Donald Trump?" That's another question. But assuming there is journalism after Trump, will we have a regression to the mean and go back to the old way, or has something changed in our DNA, has something changed profoundly?
JOANNE MYERS: It seems to have been changed with Donald Trump's presidency, but do you see it in reporting any other stories? You talk about the "post-truth" era where misconceptions and prejudices are being put aside. Is that true in other stories as well as just political journalism?
LINDA GREENHOUSE: I think it has become true in science, for instance. There was a long time when the notion of climate change was regarded as a debatable issue, and you could not just assume that people accepted the notion. You always had to quote the smaller, smaller, smaller, to infinitesimal deniers to give balance to that story. That is no longer happening. So I think science is one area. You could probably find others.
There are major areas that we need to know about and that the press covers: economics. Is the tax cut good or bad for most people or for the economy? There is not an obvious answer to that, so you do not look for an obvious answer. You do look for a rich and contextual discussion of the way things might go instead of just a sound bite.
JOANNE MYERS: Do you think then the ethics of reporting have changed in some way in journalism today, or have the standards always been the same and will continue to be so?
LINDA GREENHOUSE: I think the stated standard has always been the same. I begin the book maybe a little pretentiously, I don't know, with a quote from Walter Lippmann. You have the book there. I will just quote a bit from it because when I came upon this passage from Walter Lippmann, it was a speech he gave on his 70th birthday to the National Press Club, and he says: "If the country is to be governed with the consent of the governed, then the governed must arrive at opinions about what their governors want them to consent to." How do they do that?
He goes on to say they do it "by being exposed to a robust and hardworking press who gets the story." In this, he says, "we do what every sovereign citizen is supposed to do but has not the time or the interest to do for himself. This is our job. It is no mean calling. We have a right to be proud of it and to be glad that it is our work."
That has always been the standard, but I think these norms of he said/she said, of the kind of false balance—I have a lot of examples in the book of this habit that has driven me nuts for many years, which is you cannot have the reporter saying something on her own authority. You have to put it in the words of some purported expert, somebody with a title. Often the title is professor, and you get some professor to say it because that sounds more credible. That kind of thing is very, as I said, disabling. So there has been a divergence between what we say we are doing and what actually happens in the newsroom.
JOANNE MYERS: So you don't think it is necessary then or even important for a journalist to present both sides of the issues? What you are saying, it seems to me, is that if there is one side, like in torture versus waterboarding, which is torture, that you can say it without having to present somebody else's viewpoint.
LINDA GREENHOUSE: Yes, I think so. You are not operating in the abstract. You are operating within a political context. In that kind of story you would say: "John Yoo in the Office of Legal Counsel wrote a memo that justified this. However, back before the U.S. started doing it, it was very common for the U.S. to call it torture, to call it a war crime. All of a sudden, now we're doing it, and it's okay because there's a memo." You spell all that out.
Something I write about, something I have always felt strongly about, is context. Context matters. Assume your readers or your viewers are smart enough to want and need to be able to understand the nuances of context beyond the sound bite.
JOANNE MYERS: You call yourself an "accidental activist in the cause of breaking barriers between the world of a journalist and that of a citizen." Who do you think you as a journalist owe your allegiance to, then? Would it be the public or would it to be to you yourself in reporting?
LINDA GREENHOUSE: As a journalist? I always thought to my readers, and I saw my role as not telling readers what to think. Now, of course, since I write an opinion column, I am paid to tell them what to think. An opinion column without opinions is a failure, but back in my earlier phase not to tell them what to think but to empower them with information in context to think for themselves and figure it out for themselves. I think I was pretty clear on that.
The "activism" that I write about in the autobiographical parts of the book come from my belief that there is a separation between what one does on the job, which is to adhere to the standards I set for myself, and the role that one takes as a citizen in a democracy: Can I express my view of the world when I am not on the job, and I argue yes.
JOANNE MYERS: Has it been difficult for you to separate yourself from being a citizen or a journalist, or is it just easy because you believe that you need to put the context in for people to—
LINDA GREENHOUSE: I didn't think it was difficult. Others seemed to have difficulty with it. To me the boundaries were pretty clear, and I never thought that I transgressed them. I didn't set out to transgress them or to make an example. I just did what I thought was my right and duty as a citizen to do.
JOANNE MYERS: Right. You talked about that you were contributing to Planned Parenthood and all that, and you posted it, and you got a lot of feedback not so positive about doing so. But do you think the boundaries have changed now between being the journalist or being the citizen-journalist in some ways?
LINDA GREENHOUSE: If we have time, maybe I will just read that little passage about this because I can let people in on what we are talking about. Because when the book came out in October, a writer for The Washington Post found it very shocking that I "admitted" that I gave money—and still give money—to Planned Parenthood.
This was how that came about. I say: "Every year back in my early reporting days in New York on the Metro Desk, every year the publisher, Punch Sulzberger, who was himself a great supporter of Planned Parenthood, solicited employees to authorize a payroll deduction for contributions to United Way. When I worked in New York I always contributed after checking the list of United Way beneficiaries and seeing that Planned Parenthood was on the list."
"When I arrived in Washington, in the Washington Bureau, I checked the list and was surprised to find that the local Planned Parenthood affiliate was missing. I called United Way in Washington to ask why. After being passed among several employees I finally reached someone who told me that the problem was that Planned Parenthood was 'controversial.'"
"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 on the office bulletin board, urging colleagues to follow my example. If anyone did, they kept that knowledge to themselves."
There was never anything secret about anything I did in my role as a citizen. What changed, I think, was a kind of sanctimonious spasm that overcame mainstream journalism in response to the bullying on the right, and we all know the way to deal with a bully is not to submit to the bully; it is to stand up to the bully. But that doesn't usually happen.
So this fellow from The Washington Post or other people who read this went: "My god! How could she have done that?" Well, nobody seemed to have a problem with it at the time.
JOANNE MYERS: Do you think things have changed?
LINDA GREENHOUSE: Yes.
JOANNE MYERS: The boundaries have changed?
LINDA GREENHOUSE: I think they have because of fear.
JOANNE MYERS: Fear of?
LINDA GREENHOUSE: Fear of being bullied from the right, fear of being called "non-objective."
JOANNE MYERS: You talk about being bullied, so I guess that is a perfect segue into our current president. He has come out and suggested that the press doesn't really like America. He has said the media is the enemy of the American people. He has repeatedly called journalists the most dishonest people. He has worked to paint news stories he does not like as "fake" and claimed he created that term. Last night, he announced the fake news award. I guess you didn't get one. I don't know how you feel about that, but I noticed in the lineup several people at The New York Times did. How do we address a president who is constantly attacking and demonizing the media?
LINDA GREENHOUSE: I think just doing journalism's job, which is to report what he says and what he does, and to the extent that there is dissonance between those two things to explain it and exemplify it.
JOANNE MYERS: Today on reading the news there is an opinion section where people have said that they really think that Donald Trump is doing a great job. The press, although they are coming out and pointing out these things, where is the disconnect? How do you convince people in some way that this man is really sort of a detriment to the Fourth Estate?
LINDA GREENHOUSE: The 30 percent of the country that is apparently his unshakable base, and these were the people who responded to the invitation of the Times to write letters describing it, they are maybe not reachable. They have access to the same information that we all do in this room, and they draw different conclusions from it.
I do not see the role of the press to be changing their minds. It is to make sure that information is flowing and always available so that if any of those people do wake up and want to see things in a different way that is available to them, but I certainly do not see the role as metaphorically shaking them by the lapels and saying, "You're wrong."
I don't know what led into that feature today that took over the editorial page. I found it very interesting because we all live in a—here we are, sitting on the East Side of Manhattan, so I think it is important, and it would be a failure of journalism not to take account of what those folks think about what is going on. It is part of our national story, and I was very interested to see it, actually.
JOANNE MYERS: Let's move then to today where the news media—I would like to spend a few minutes on this—is undergoing drastic change because there are many opportunities for independent journalists to write what they think following what we were just discussing. There are blogs. Anyone who is writing a blog can write it in real time. News is available.
So what does this do with long-term investigative journalism that has taken time to point out the facts, what is right or fair and balanced? Then again, the idea that people are within bubbles talking only to each other. How do you address this challenge in journalism today?
LINDA GREENHOUSE: That is a very complicated, multifaceted issue. One issue is the siloing of the media and the audience. This is not an original thought. Back when you and I were growing up, everybody watched one of three networks and was getting the same news at the same time, and now we segment ourselves and we select ourselves. The president gets his news from one particular outlet and goes immediately into his Twitter account. So that is one issue.
The other issue—I think the multiplicity of voices and the low cost of entry to having your voice amplified through social media and on the Internet obviously has its problems, but I think it is more good than bad and enables people to just be better informed, but it takes some sophistication. Obviously, when the Russians were using Facebook or whatever they were doing to shake people up during the election, that is an example. We need sophistication.
I read a couple of months ago, I guess in the Times, that the education establishment in Italy is working on a curriculum starting in the lower elementary grades to teach students how to be sophisticated consumers of news and of the Internet. Of course, we do not have a national curriculum in this country, but I think that is something we might think of.
In the book I write about a certain kind of crisis in my mind when I realize that the Supreme Court, which I was covering, put up a pretty decent website on which people can read the briefs, people can get the transcripts of the arguments, people can get the opinions within minutes of the opinions being issues, and I thought to myself, What's my role? Has the Internet just kind of made me obsolete? Why does anybody need me?
Working that through over a period of time I realized that what they needed me for was the context: Where did the case come from? What does this decision mean? What is the next chapter? How does it fit in with this, that, and the other thing that has happened in the past or is going to happen in the future? That actually made the job more rather than less challenging and interesting to me.
So I think that kind of real-time information is really important, but it is not the end of the story. It is not the whole story. There may be greater need than ever for smart, contextual journalism.
JOANNE MYERS: It seems to me that the theme of this conversation has been about context. I think that is an important role for a live journalist today. Rather, writing in a newspaper is providing that context that you all need to understand more. We just hope that people will take the time to read that context rather than just go to whatever the one-liner is.
LINDA GREENHOUSE: Right. If it is just the one line on your phone, that is a problem.
JOANNE MYERS: Do you think that journalism is then fulfilling its duty in a democracy today in terms of the way it is reporting on things? Not everybody has that context, so it is the one-liner. Does that take away from the duty of a journalist in some way?
LINDA GREENHOUSE: Is journalism fulfilling its duty? That is a really broad question. What is journalism? It is all these different elements.
JOANNE MYERS: So journalism has evolved, then.
LINDA GREENHOUSE: Some is, and some isn't.
JOANNE MYERS: How would you define journalism then today?
LINDA GREENHOUSE: It is all these different kinds of voices and outlets and much wider. But in a way Donald Trump has been a boon to The New York Times. Hundreds of thousands of more subscriptions have been sold because people feel the need to know things.
JOANNE MYERS: You always have to find the good in something bad.
LINDA GREENHOUSE: I was at a conference this summer in England, and it was a conference put on by the Canadian bench and bar, so many Canadian participants. Basically everybody there told me they had just started subscribing to The New York Times, that they were desperately concerned about what was going on in the United States, that it had a great deal to do with—Canada really cares—and they had a need to know, and they were buying this digital New York Times, and I go, "Great!"
JOANNE MYERS: Absolutely. I guess this goes to what you have written about, saying that what the world needs is "wisdom journalism."
LINDA GREENHOUSE: Not a line of mine. I am quoting a journalism scholar for that.
JOANNE MYERS: Wisdom journalism then to you would mean having the context with it and the understanding.
LINDA GREENHOUSE: Context and not falling into these traps of just quoting and letting the quote stand unchallenged if it needs challenging.
JOANNE MYERS: I think you have given us a very good sense that journalism is still alive and is important and that we need it, even though we have a Donald Trump who is degrading it at every turn.
QUESTION: Thank you so much, Linda. I am a fan of yours and quite a journalistic junkie myself. I get five newspapers to my door every day.
I recently saw a very fine Ben Bradlee documentary on television, which raised a lot of the issues which you raised in this discussion, particularly his role as a friend, particularly to the Kennedys.
But I would like to throw one question at you, and that is, what should be the connection with the front page and the editorial page as far as the front page accurately, unbiasedly reports the news?
LINDA GREENHOUSE: What should be the connection?
QUESTIONER [Unidentified]: Or should there be a connection? If you pick up the New York Post or a right-wing paper, The Wall Street Journal, and then you pick up the Times or The Washington Post, the same event on the front page is depicted in an entirely different light. What is your feeling about what should be the role of the editor in keeping the front page impartial and accurate?
LINDA GREENHOUSE: Well, see, there we are with the impartial stuff. There is an old line: "News is what happens to an editor." It is a judgment call as to—and we are talking from our generation. People don't look at a front page anymore; it is all digital.
What is important about what happened yesterday or an hour ago is a judgment call. If a paper that skews left thinks one thing is more important than a paper that skews right will think is important, I don't think it is a failing. I think it is inevitable really, unless we had some kind of metric that everybody has to see things the same way.
Nor do I think it means that the news judgment should simply be in service of the publisher's views as reflected on the editorial page, and I do not think that is the case. I am quite sure it is not the case.
I think there is a boundary and a distinction, but I think it is also the case, especially in the digital world, where there is not a physical separation. I think that is lost on the new readers and probably lost on more readers all the time. If you are just reading the paper on your phone, and it is serving up to you interesting reads of the day, it is not really making a distinction between news and opinion, and that is an issue. It is.
QUESTION: Ron Berenbeim.
You talked about the importance of context, and I know, we all know, and some of us including me have even read at least one of your books about the Supreme Court. So now Trump, one of the great opportunities he is being presented with and where his constituency apparently feels he has delivered, is in the form of court appointments, particularly the Supreme Court, but also the lower courts.
The context of history, and what I'm thinking of now is particularly your wonderful book on Justice Blackmun, that justices evolve, so that we should not necessarily expect Neil Gorsuch to be the most conservative justice on the Supreme Court in 25 years just as very few people would have expected Felix Frankfurter to have that role at a certain point when he was appointed during the New Deal or at least one of them.
Could you comment on what you think about Trump's opportunities and whether you think he can depend on these people he has appointed to evolve, so to speak?
LINDA GREENHOUSE: That is an interesting question. There has actually been a fair amount of academic research on what the political scientists would call not "evolution" but "preference change" over the trajectory of a Supreme Court justice's career.
There is one well-known article by Professor Michael Dorf from Columbia Law School. He looked at Republican-appointed justices from the mid-20th century, from the Warren Court, and this article came out  years ago. It was mostly Republican appointees, those who shifted left and those who did not, and what did those two groups have in common.
The commonalities were really interesting. The ones who shifted left all came, like Harry Blackmun, from way outside the Beltway, did not have any ties in DC, moved in mid-life to Washington, DC, to take up this amazing position as a member of the U.S. Supreme Court. It kind of shakes you up, kind of makes you question your priors, and you don't have a network that you are necessarily falling into.
The ones who did not change were the creatures of the Beltway, had paid their dues in the executive branch or whatever. Take Chief Justice Roberts. When he moved from the DC Circuit to—he is outside the frame of Michael Dorf's article, but just look at him—the Supreme Court. His commute grew by about five blocks. That's it. He has a big network in Washington. The likelihood that John Roberts—well, I want to modify that a little because there is a lot of interesting stuff going on at the court, but he is not going to wake up someday and find himself a Harry Blackmun.
I will segue into a funny story about John Roberts, if I may. I hear this third-hand, but it is very reliable. He was giving a talk in New Hampshire, and so he went to pay a call on retired Justice David Souter, who lives in Concord, New Hampshire, and they were talking.
Justice Souter made some comment about the flak that Chief Justice Roberts had taken for his vote in the health care case, in the first of the Obamacare cases. Then Roberts said: "Oh, it's been terrible." He said, "Do you know what they call me, the names they're calling me?"
Justice Souter said, "Well, I can imagine."
"No. Do you know what they're calling me? Do you understand what they're calling me?"
"Okay. Tell me, what are they calling you?"
"They're calling me 'Souter.'"
So David Souter is an example of somebody who came without any Washington ties whatsoever from New Hampshire. Did he move left? Yes, as the Court moved right.
It is interesting. Is Neil Gorsuch going to change? He happened to come from Colorado, from the Tenth Circuit, but he is a creature of Washington. He grew up in Washington. He practiced law in Washington. Is he going to change? No, because he goes to the Federalist Society annual convention this summer and basically says I'm your man. "Thank you for your prayers." This is an exact quote, not "I'm your man," but "Thank you for your prayers."
No, he is not going to change, and the Trump judges are being very carefully vetted. Well, some of them should have been vetted a little more before they had to pull out, but ideologically they are very carefully vetted and served up by the Federalist Society and The Heritage Foundation. It has all been outsourced, and there are not going to be any ideological mistakes.
QUESTION: Warren Hoge, now at the International Peace Institute. Nobody ever complains with me when I say that. All the years I said The New York Times, right away they said, "That newspaper of yours."
LINDA GREENHOUSE: You were hanging out in the wrong circles, Warren.
QUESTIONER [Mr. Hoge]: Linda, I want you to help me with a former New York Times person problem that I have, and it happened to me just two nights ago. I was on a panel, and somebody was coming after me as a Times person, saying, "Why did you give so much attention to the tweets?" This person even had a money amount as to how many millions of dollars of free publicity it had amounted to.
I have an answer for it, but you must be asked that also. Is there something that editors could have done to—
LINDA GREENHOUSE: You are talking about the campaign?
QUESTIONER [Mr. Hoge]: I am talking about the campaign. These are people who say, I mean, they also say we gave—I still say "we" about the Times—much too much attention to the criticism of Hillary Clinton. That is another one.
But the one that I find more difficult is when they say, "You gave that all attention to the tweets."
My answer is, "The tweets were news," the nature of tweeting was news, to have a candidate do that, to have a president do that. It would have been hard to decide at what point do you not give attention to that. If you have not heard that, I am surprised, because that is what a lot of people come after me saying: "The Times was irresponsible in devoting so much attention to the tweets and the claims and the lies."
I tend to answer: "What would you have done if you were the editor? At what point would you have said, 'We are not going to publish that because we know it is'"—
LINDA GREENHOUSE: I think that is right. I think that is the answer.
QUESTIONER [Mr. Hoge]: Have you got a better answer?
LINDA GREENHOUSE: That is a good answer. If anyone ever asks me that question, I'll say, "Well, as Warren Hoge said." That's a good answer. [Laughter]
QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.
To follow Warren, which of course is very difficult, but there is an area we have not discussed yet, which is a main source of news for many people, and that is Facebook, social media, without any real responsibility that The New York Times, The Washington Post, whatever, the major newspapers take upon themselves to check things out. What do we do when people are so influenced by whatever somebody says out of the blue?
LINDA GREENHOUSE: The answer is I don't know. Mark Zuckerberg is obviously concerned about this and is changing the business model to the dismay of many publishers I think, including the publisher of The New York Times. [I don't know] how that is going to play out, but it reflects, I think, a societal discomfort with what happened in the campaign and with the ability of people to hijack social media for their own purposes, but I am not plugged into that world enough or smart enough to presume to have a solution to it. I think there are a whole lot of smart people thinking hard about where that is going.
QUESTIONER [Susan Gitelson]: Right. Especially foreign influences, such as the Russians.
LINDA GREENHOUSE: Yes. Exactly.
QUESTION: Hello, ma'am. Midshipman Ryan Torres, United States Merchant Marine Academy.
My question goes in line with Facebook and Twitter and stuff like that. Do you think those people who consider themselves bloggers or independent journalists, who create these two-minute videos trying to condense a very complex issue into two minutes, do you think they would benefit from reading a book like yours?
LINDA GREENHOUSE: Oh, yes. Definitely. They all should read it.
QUESTIONER [Mr. Torres]: Do you think that more journalists should publish books about their time as a journalist so the average people could see more into the mind of what someone like you goes through?
LINDA GREENHOUSE: I don't know. There is a lot out there. It is a matter of who is reading it or who is thinking about it. I obviously hope people will read my book, but I am not saying it's the key to all wisdom in our present interesting set of dilemmas.
But I think what you are reflecting, as the earlier question, is there is no—one thing that editors of mainstream media do is they curate. They are curators. That goes back to the question about page one looks different depending on the point of view of the newspaper. The Museum of Modern Art is not the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and there are curators who bring their intelligence and decide what is on offer, what is on exhibit at a certain time.
We are used to that. We grew up—those of us older than you—assuming that was the case, and now it is not, certainly for the new media, and that is very disorienting. It is also very enabling. It gives people voices who never would have had a voice. I would not sit up here and say that is a priori a bad thing. Maybe it is a great thing.
We are in a transitional period of disruption and chaos in many aspects of our social and political life, and some new norms will evolve from it. I hope they are constructive. But we are intervening now in the process of evolution. It is very interesting, but I cannot sit here and say I know how it is going to end up.
QUESTION: My name is Ann Phelan, and I am a freelance editor.
I wanted to ask you a question about your time reporting on the Supreme Court. What level of fluency in legal issues did you assume your readers had, and how did you know or learn how to write a piece that would appeal to both experienced attorneys and people who had no legal background or training?
LINDA GREENHOUSE: I had a vision of who I was writing for, which was a New York Times reader, so I assumed them to be intelligent, interested, not needing to be spoon-fed, not needing to be lured into a story with an anecdote at the top and that kind of thing, people basically much like myself before I had the opportunity to spend a year on a fellowship at Yale Law School—I am not a lawyer, but I did do a one-year Master's program as preparation for covering the Court and climbing a learning curve that I am still climbing, frankly—to go back and say: "Okay, if I were that person pre- all this experience, what would I need to know about what just happened at the Court to be able to come to my own informed judgment about it? I don't need Greenhouse to tell me what to think; I need her to tell me what happened in a way that makes sense to me and that I can understand it."
When I started on the beat I set that as a very deliberate thought process as I was organizing a story. Over the years, of course, it just became instinctive, but that is who I had in mind.
Actually, the nicest letter I got, the one that meant the most to me when I retired in 2008 from the daily Times, and I got a lot of letters and stuff, and one person—I had no idea who they were—just said, "Thank you for never talking down to us." I took that as a high compliment. But thank you for asking.
QUESTION: Peter Russell is my name.
You have given us a good notion of how reporters and editors can respond to the challenges, but could you speak a little bit about the legal and regulatory official context that we are seeing now where reporters are denied access, there are threats of libel action, there could be licensing questions, tax pressures, who knows what?
LINDA GREENHOUSE: Reporters have always been denied access. It is not as if there was a golden age where federal officials said, "Oh, come on in, and let me open my books." We want to be clear on that. Look at Richard Nixon with his "Enemies List." The difference was that Nixon didn't have social media as a megaphone, so some of that came out after the fact, and it was a different kind of climate.
To be perfectly honest, I don't take a lot of that terrifically seriously. I think it is a lot of bluster, the "We're going to redo the libel laws." Oh, yeah? Really?
Would it be great to have an open door? I just saw the movie The Post, which I highly recommend people see, even though apparently some Times editors are so annoyed at the Times not getting proper credit that they have announced publicly that they are not going. I don't even get that, but that's what they said. That is a great example of brave and out-there journalism. That will persist.
There is always a tension, and maybe there always should be. It keeps people motivated and keeps their juices flowing. I do not actually see that as kind of a crisis term.
QUESTION: Hi, Linda. I'm Tom Herman. I teach a seminar at Yale, and we talk about journalism ethics.
I wanted to follow up on your comments before about the role of journalists and their roles as private citizens. Where do you draw the line?
For example, could a journalist—not an opinion writer—contribute to political campaigns? Can a journalist march? Can a journalist speak at a college reunion and speak their mind without their public editor coming down on them? Where do you draw the line and how?
LINDA GREENHOUSE: As to those last two, I say absolutely. To the political campaign, I'd say probably not, and I didn't. Some very famous newspaper editors say that they do not think reporters should even vote, and I do not agree with that. I think that is a core right of citizenship. I have never not voted. I hope I am with it enough in the rest of my life to keep voting. I cannot imagine saying that I am going to put my citizenship on the shelf because of who writes my paycheck.
People are entitled to draw lines for themselves that meet their own comfort zone, but I would say that—say, for instance, the Times told people a year ago, "You may not go to Washington to the Women's March," or I suppose to any of the women's marches. That was an edict that came down.
I am not in the newsroom anymore, so I really have no idea how people responded, whether they were sorry about it and stayed home, whether they were sorry about it and went anyway, whether they thought this is right. I honestly have no idea. But I would like to think that had I been in the newsroom and I got that edict, I would have said, well, nuts to this, and I care about the world, and I'm going, and I would have gone.
QUESTIONER [Mr. Herman]: Can I follow up on that? Am I correct that New York Times columnists, although you are free to express your views on nearly everything, that you are strictly forbidden from endorsing someone for president? I ask that because Paul Krugman once said that is the one thing he cannot do. Is that still true? Only the publisher can?
LINDA GREENHOUSE: I honestly don't know. I don't know the answer to that. I am not an employee of the Times; I am a freelance contractor, so I don't know.
JOANNE MYERS: Do you think that there is any information that is too dangerous to print?
LINDA GREENHOUSE: Like how to make a nuclear bomb?
JOANNE MYERS: You brought up the Pentagon Papers, The New York Times got that, but in today's age is there in your opinion anything that is just too dangerous to print?
LINDA GREENHOUSE: That was kind of the whole question of the Pentagon Papers, right?
JOANNE MYERS: Right, but going forward. That was then, this is now.
LINDA GREENHOUSE: Yes, I suppose. There are a number of recent cases where the Times has withheld information with military consequences because the government has asked them to withhold it. I don't argue with that.
JOANNE MYERS: I guess it's a judgment call.
LINDA GREENHOUSE: It's a judgment call.
JOANNE MYERS: The Pentagon Papers were.
LINDA GREENHOUSE: That's why the editors get paid the big bucks.
JOANNE MYERS: Like to make those decisions.
LINDA GREENHOUSE: Yes, and I don't quarrel with that.
QUESTION: I am Midshipman Blasé Neumann, also from the Merchant Marine Academy.
Recently CNN came out with a commercial about their "real news." If my memory serves me correctly, I saw a similar thing on NBC. I was wondering if you think that is necessary, or will it become a continuing trend as a common practice to have to defend the news's credibility in today's world?
LINDA GREENHOUSE: If I heard you or if I understood the question, media putting out advertising? The Post has a great line: "Democracy dies in darkness." They have adopted a slogan. The Times ran an ad during the [Oscars] last year: "Truth is hard, truth is vital, truth is" a bunch of kind of slogans. I think that is good, actually. Make people think. Make people think about what they rely on and what keeps our government honest.
QUESTION: Hi. It was a nice talk. I look forward to reading your book. I am Wendy Diller. I am a science and business writer.
My question actually had to do with the current Supreme Court and what couple of cases you are most interested in for this term.
LINDA GREENHOUSE: Right now? Of course, the Court has had only one opinion this entire term. There is something very weird going on at the Court. Everybody is just scratching their head. One opinion this entire term. So I am very interested in all the cases they have argued since October 2. Where are they? [Editor's note: For more from Greenhouse on the issue that there has been only argued case decided upon since October 2, 2017, see her January 18, 2018 article]
I am very interested right now in this whole ridiculous controversy over the Trump administration's refusal to let pregnant teens in immigration detention exercise their constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy. There is such a case at the Supreme Court right now. The justices have been sitting on it for a couple of weeks.
The case is moot because the girl got the abortion, thanks to a lower court and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawyers, but the Trump administration has gone in making a series of frivolous and ridiculous requests of the Court, including sanctioning the lawyers who got the abortion for this girl, so I am very interested in what is going to happen with that, and we should hear within a very short time.
QUESTIONER [Ms. Diller]: When you say that there is "something weird" going on at the Court, what do you mean? You said it a few times.
LINDA GREENHOUSE: What I mean is it is very weird that it is January 18 and they have only had one opinion for the entire term. That is strange.
There is a black box there in which the justices interact and do whatever they need to do to produce opinions, and there is something that is gumming up the works, and I don't know what it is. Opinions will start flowing. Every case that is argued will be decided or will have some kind of explanation, and so eventually we may know what has happened between October 2, when the term began, and whenever the next opinions flow, but we don't know now.
JOANNE MYERS: Linda, you may have ideas about being objective and fair and balanced, but I would like to thank you for answering each question in a very fair and balanced way. I would like to invite you all to join us to continue the conversation.