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Wizbang Podcast #41

Here's what I thought you'd like to hear about today:

  1. The Real Problem with Press Bias -When is it OK for a reporter to disclose their opinions
  2. War Gaming Nuclear Weapons in the hands of Terroists -A Nobel Prize winner's opinions



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The Real Problem with Press Bias

Linda Greenhouse is the veteran Supreme Court reporter for the New York Times. She has been on the job for decades, won a Pulitzer prize, and earned a reputation as a knowledgeable and honest reporter of the world of the Supreme Court. Ann Althouse takes up her case today on her Althouse blog in a post headlined, "When journalists express an opinion." The story goes back to a speech Greenhouse made at Harvard in June, in which she expressed her opinion on issues of the day, including abortion, civil liberties, and religion in political life.

I'm going to play a few clips to tell the story. The first is from the NPR segment, in which her speech is heard. The NPR slant is that it is wrong for a journalist to express such a partisan opinion outside her reportorial activities.

Play clip.

As you heard, NPR's concern is that bias should be hidden when it's not in the newspaper. That misses the point of course, that the most damaging bias is that which is hidden in the newspaper. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Here's a clip of Greenhouse from the Scotus Podcast. Scotus is an acronym for the Supreme Court of the United States. The Scotus Podcast consists of interviews with people who make or report the news. They describe the interview in a post there.

Today's podcast features a conversation with Linda Greenhouse, who has covered the Supreme Court beat for the New York Times since 1978; in 1998 she won a Pulitzer Prize for her reporting. Linda recently sat down with Tom [Goldstein] to discuss her book, Becoming Justice Blackmun, to give her thoughts on how the two new Justices may change over time, and to comment on the recent controversy over a speech she gave at Radcliffe College.

I won't play the segment on Justice Blackmun, the author of the Roe v. Wade opinion, which is great, but doesn't make the point I'm trying to make. And I won't play the very interesting portion where she describes how she deals with the incredible time pressures on the days when complex opinions are handed down by the court. Go and subscribe to the Scotus podcast to get that. Instead, I will play the end of the interview, in which Greenhouse wonders what all the fuss is about.

Play clip.

That Greenhouse is surprised that her speech would be considered a "gross violation of ethics" shows how insulated she is on her Supreme Court beat at the New York Times. She simply spoke facts, as she felt them. She was just speaking "Truth to Power", as someone like Keith Olbermann might say. But my concern is not that her unvarnished and partisan opinions came into the open. I applaud her openness, and wish more supposedly unbiased reporters would disclose their opinions to the public. This was the point Ann Althouse made today:

Greenhouse's speech didn't seem that out of line to me, because I am so used to hearing law professors express all kinds of personal and political opinions about the Supreme Court, and, obviously, I do it all the time myself. I'm trying to imagine a law school where the professors felt they needed to make sacrifices and suppress and submerge their opinions. Actually, it's a scary place! Do you really want us to become more devious? (Recall the discussion here a few months ago about an op-ed by Stanley Fish about whether teachers need to exclude their political opinions from classroom teaching.)

When I read journalistic writing, I always assume the reporter has political opinions, and I try to figure out what they are. Both Okrent and Calame make a point of praising Greenhouse for reaching a high standard of neutrality in her journalistic writing. But that shouldn't make anyone think she doesn't actually have opinions. It just means you'd have to do a very sophisticated analysis to figure out if any of her opinion finds its way into her presentation of the complicated statements of Supreme Court justices (which are themselves carefully written to exclude the appearance of personal opinion).

So I'm not disturbed by what Greenhouse said in her speech, and I think Okrent is right that reporters can have a little more freedom than the official NYT policy seems to require.


The real insidiousness is when reporters sneak their opinions into the reporting, of course. This is the point that Mathew J. Frank made on Bench Memos, on National Review Online back on September 27. He wrote:


Still More Gas from Greenhouse
[Matthew J. Franck 09/27 09:37 AM]

Yesterday on The Corner, John Podhoretz and Andy McCarthy briefly commented on a speech Linda Greenhouse, the Supreme Court reporter for the New York Times, made at Harvard back in June. It was just the subject of a report yesterday on NPR, hence the discussion of something that happened three months ago. NPR talked to various journalists about whether some ethic of journalistic "neutrality" was violated by Greenhouse's giving such a partisan speech. But to longtime readers of Greenhouse's newspaper work, it would not surprise if she started writing blurbs for the backs of Noam Chomsky paperbacks.

To me, what was noteworthy about the speech (whose text is here) is what it tells us about how small is the world Linda Greenhouse inhabits. At one point, when recounting how she told her daughter that she was a college graduate before she ever met a female lawyer, Greenhouse records her daughter's response: "Face it, mom, you led a sheltered life." This is truer than either mother or daughter seems to know, for it seems she still does lead such a life. Greenhouse has spent decades reporting from the frontlines of the legal, political, and cultural battles in which the U.S. Supreme Court plays a central part, reading the briefs, hearing the arguments, and reporting on the rulings, and despite that experience, from the evidence of this speech she seems completely unable to credit the possibility that intelligent people of good faith might differ with her about abortion, the relations of church and state, the separation of powers in time of war, gay rights, and goodness knows what else. This is a failure of sympathetic imagination that makes Greenhouse quite possibly the worst journalist on the Supreme Court beat.


The furor that journalists are having now about her speech stems from the fear that such opinionating will let the public in on the dirty little secret of journalism: People will know how far to the left reporters really are. The press wants to hide that fact. By doing so, it allows them to continue masquerading their political opinions as news stories. By permeating their news articles with their opinions, the can amplify their influence on public opinion. As Clay Waters noticed on NewsBusters last week:

every time a Times staffer gets up in front of a college audience he or she seems to spout left-wing rhetoric that contradicts the paper's increasingly disbelieved claims of objective reporting.

That's what worries the press: that their preferred technique, the much more insidious and effective method of influencing public opinion will be lost in a flurry of "bias in the media" stories. It's no surprise how reporters feel. We are glad they acknowledge it. Our concern is when they hide it in things like scare quotes around the "so-called war on terror" or references to what "some call partial birth abortion", or claims of "domestic wiretapping". It's the hidden biases that are the most dangerous. Betsy Newmark at Betsys Page adds this, commenting on Okrent's statement that "reporter's ideology [has] to be suppressed and submerged":

In other words, it's fine to have views - after all, anyone who intensively covered politics or the law would be bound to have views, but just hide them from the public. So, Greenhouse's openness breaks the rules of standard journalism.

I would much prefer that reporters take the Greenhouse approach. If she has strong views, be public about them and let the reader take that into account when reading and evaluating her stories. Don't play this game with us that you're being perfectly objective, when no one is perfectly objective. The stories you choose to cover and how you cover them are all colored by your personal biases whether you acknowledge them openly or not.


I couldn't agree more.

War Gaming Nuclear Weapons in the hands of Terroists


Thomas Schelling won the Nobel Prize in Economics last year. Greg Mankiw's pointed to a video where Dr. Schelling spoke at the Kennedy School at Harvard:
You can watch a tribute to economist Thomas Schelling, held at Harvard yesterday... He reflects on what it's like to win the Nobel, on his work in game theory, and on U.S. defense policy.

In this section of the talk, Dr. Schelling gives some advice on how to deal with a potential of nuclear weapons in the hands of Iran, North Korea, and the experience of deterrence. He is one of the smartest economists in the field of game theory as applied to international relations, defense, and nuclear weapons. First, he refers to applications of game theory in the defense in the 20th century, and the ancients.

Play clip.

Later on, someone asks him what advice he would give to Donald Rumsfeld concerning nuclear proliferation. His answer is interesting. The first piece of advice is to keep the taboo on the U.S. using nuclear weapons. He gives the example of Golda Meier not using them against Israel's enemies, which had a long term benefit to Israel's national security. The second piece of advice is in the following clip.

Play clip.

Finally, his advice for the terrorist regimes:

Play clip.

"The last thing they want to do is waste nuclear weapons killing people." I'm just afraid that the other side is as stupid about nuclear weapons as Schelling fears. So are the Editors at National Review.

Even if the mullahs never used their arsenal, its simple existence would deal a catastrophic blow to U.S. interests. It would effectively give Tehran a veto over U.S. military action in the region. Since the nuclear facilities are protected by the Revolutionary Guard -- rabid ideologues who operate with a high degree of autonomy -- a weapon could conceivably be transferred to terrorists without the central government's okay. And an Iranian bomb would likely produce a regional arms race and multiply the number of Middle Eastern nuclear powers. This too would raise the likelihood that a weapon of mass destruction will fall into terrorist hands; and by making it harder to determine where a detonated bomb had originated and retaliate against the guilty party, it would give the jihad that much more incentive to push the button.

On the other hand, Justin Logan at Cato-at-Liberty. thinks that deterrence has value, but not an infinite amount of it. He writes:

Simply put, this just isn't true. The Soviet Union's and China's possession of nuclear weapons didn't prevent the US from invading Vietnam. US possession of nuclear weapons didn't prevent the Soviet Union from invading Afghanistan. Israeli possession of nuclear weapons hasn't prevented a series of attacks on Israel's peripheral interests. We could go on.

This kind of reasoning at NRO betrays how much we have forgotten about deterrence theory. Since I'm probably younger than any of NRO's editorialists, youth is no excuse.

Iranian possession of nuclear weapons would indeed give Iran a veto over one prospective US policy: regime change in Iran. Nuclear deterrents are useful in protecting vital interests. But the notion that an Iranian nuclear weapons capability would somehow give Iran a veto over the range of available US policies in the region is silly. It would definitely make the US think twice about the implications of its policies in the region, and perhaps make America more cautious, but given recent experience, one has to wonder how bad that would be.


Dr. Schelling's recommendation that we seek to educate the Iranians and the North Koreans about protection of nuclear weapons is sound, but I am afraid it is inadequate for our protection in the future. These guys are crazy.

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