A Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist reflects on the changes and flaws within her profession.
Best known for her decades covering the Supreme Court beat for the New York Times, Greenhouse (Becoming Justice Blackmun: Harry Blackmun’s Supreme Court Journey, 2005) writes frankly of her frustrations at the Times and with journalism in general. Too often, she believes, journalists have pulled their punches, sacrificing truth as they perceive it before the false gods of fairness and objectivity. “The opposite of objectivity isn’t partisanship, or needn’t be,” she writes. “Rather, it is judgment, the hard work of sorting out the false claims from the true and discarding or at least labeling the false.” Greenhouse shows what significant strides journalism has made in what she calls “the post-truth age,” when news stories and headlines now employ language once reserved for opinion pieces or for private conversations among journalists. If a candidate, or even a president, tells a lie, her former paper no longer has qualms about labeling it as such. Yet some will continue to find bias in such labeling and will see what is offered as context or analysis as opinion. The author asks, “does ‘objectivity,’ with its mantra of ‘fairness and balance,’ too often inhibit journalists from separating fact from fiction and from fulfilling the duty to help maintain an informed citizenry in a democracy?” From her perspective, the question is rhetorical, and the answer is apparent. Yet this brief book of argument and anecdote presents a minefield of challenges that journalism itself is far from unified over how to face. And the ground keeps shifting as the mainstream press does its best to remain a watchdog while resisting the label of adversary. The third and final section of the book recounts Greenhouse’s newspaper career, showing how much things have changed since the days when women were an anomaly in the profession, deadlines determined the news cycle, and the internet and smartphones were hard to imagine.
While raising plenty of significant issues, Greenhouse’s themes remain open to spirited debate.