Journalists struggling to find The Truth

The following is the complete speech by Linda Greenhouse, presented at the James Millstone Memorial Lecture in St. Louis on April 6, 2011.

A story in the New York Times about a dispute involving the Fox News Channel described Fox News as “a channel with a reputation for having a conservative point of view in much of its programming.”[1]


That phrase “with a reputation” put the reporter, and the newspaper, at arm’s length from the fact that the Fox News channel does have a conservative point of view, and proudly so.

What was the purpose of that distancing phrase?

A Washington Post article on the shooting at the Fort Hood Army base recounted that the shooter, Nidal Hasan, “allegedly opened fire” [2] — an act that he indisputably performed in front of dozens of witnesses.

A New York Times article, typical of many others, referred to Jared Loughner as “the man accused of opening fire outside a Tucson supermarket.”[3] Whether the Tucson shooter is guilty of murder is a legal question, but there is no question at all about his identity as the man who shot Congresswoman Giffords and killed six people. We don’t have to say “accused of” – he did the deed in front of dozens of witnesses.

I’m not picking on the New York Times — the newspaper I read most carefully – as well as the place I worked for 40 years. And although it is attacked, most often from the right but not infrequently from the left, for various kinds of bias, it actually, in both its performance and its ideals, epitomizes the commitment of mainstream journalism to the goals of fairness and objectivity.

This is nothing new. Adolph Ochs, the founding publisher of the modern New York Times, whose byword was “without fear or favor” believed that a responsible newspaper should “report all sides of a controversial issue, and let the reader decide the truth,” according to a reminiscence written a couple of years ago for internal distribution to the Times staff. His successor, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, liked to say: “We tell the public which way the cat is jumping. The public will take care of the cat.”[4]

In my remarks tonight, I would like to raise some questions about the assumption behind that credo, as well as the utility, in this media-saturated and cynical age, of the siren call of “fairness and objectivity.” I will do this by examining how these standards are working in practice. I will question whether the working definition of “fairness,” which seems to boil down to “give both sides of every story,” can operate in a complex world where many stories worth telling have many sides – or only one.

I am hardly the first one to raise questions like these. Inside the profession of journalism, there has been a lively debate going on for years over whether the “he said, she said” format, designed to avoid taking sides on contentious issues, impedes rather than enhances the goal of informing the reader.

This debate comes up most often during political campaigns, and many press critics and commentators have pointed out how superficial and subject to manipulation that format can be in the context of a campaign. For that reason, many news organizations now publish or post “fact-check” boxes that vet the accuracy of political ads or of candidates’ assertions during debates. A good example of this was a “Check Point” feature that ran in the Times during the last Presidential campaign under the headline: “Ad on Sex Education Distorts Obama Policy.”[5] It reported that claims in an ad being run by the McCain campaign “seriously distort the record” by portraying Barack Obama as favoring “comprehensive sex education” for kindergarten students. Another campaign story, which ran in the Times as straight news on page one, reported that the author of a negative book about Senator John Kerry’s war record that appeared during the 2004 presidential campaign was now trying with a newly published book to inflict equivalent damage on Senator Obama. But “several of the book’s accusations, in fact, are unsubstantiated, misleading or inaccurate,” the article declared flatly.[6]

It’s relatively easy to make a frontal attack on the “he said, she said” norm in the context of a political campaign, where there is widespread agreement about the format’s inadequacy. It’s more challenging in other contexts. For instance, some people – many people – consider waterboarding to be torture, and they refer to it that way. But others cling to the notion that it is not torture. What is a news organization to do?

National Public Radio has chosen to use “harsh interrogation tactics” or “enhanced interrogation techniques” instead of “torture” when reporting stories about waterboarding and other coercive practices used to interrogate terrorism suspects. When listeners pushed back, the NPR ombudsman, Alicia C. Shepard, responded that she agreed with the network. “The problem is that the word torture is loaded with political and social implications,” she wrote on her blog, adding: “NPR’s job is to give listeners all perspectives, and present the news as detailed as possible and put it in context.” Because using the word torture would amount to taking sides, reporters should instead “describe the techniques and skip the characterization” entirely, she said.[7]

Again, that may be an easy example, because it’s binary – use the word torture, or avoid it. How about a complex event or situation that requires the reporter to make a series of judgments in order to describe adequately and assign priorities to such factors as motivation, relationships among actors, or likely consequences.

Paul Taylor, a former political reporter for the Washington Post, had this to say in his trenchant book, See How They Run:

“Sometimes I worry that my squeamishness about making sharp judgments, pro or con, makes me unfit for the small-bank world of daily journalism. Other times I conclude that it makes me ideally suited for newspapering – certainly for the rigors and conventions of modern ‘objective’ journalism. For I can dispose of my dilemmas by writing stories straight down the middle. I can search for the halfway point between the best and the worst that might be said about someone (or some policy or idea) and write my story in that fair-minded place. By aiming for the golden mean, I probably land near the best approximation of truth more often than if I were guided by any other set of compasses – partisan, ideological, psychological, whatever . . . Yes, I am seeking truth. But I’m also seeking refuge. I’m taking a pass on the toughest calls I face.”[8]

Jay Rosen, a press critic and journalism professor at New York University, calls the phenomenon that Paul Taylor describes as “regression toward a phony mean.”[9]

Joan Didion, way back in 1996, referred to “fairness” as a “familiar newsroom piety” and “benign ideal” that operates in practice as “the excuse for a good deal of autopilot reporting and lazy thinking.” What it often means, she wrote, “is a scrupulous passivity, an agreement to cover the story not as it is occurring but as it is presented, which is to say as it is manufactured.”[10]

In that same year, 1996, the Society of Professional Journalists dropped “objectivity” from its ethics code, a development understood to reflect the fact that there had ceased to be, if there ever was, a common understanding within the profession of what objective reporting consists of.[11]

A leading commentary on the modern practice of journalism, The Elements of Journalism, by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, omits “fairness” and “objectivity” from its list of the 10 basic elements of journalism, described as “clear principles that journalists agree on – and that citizens have a right to expect.”[12] Why the omissions? “Familiar and even useful” as the idea of fairness and balance may be, the authors say, the very concept “has been so mangled” as to have become part of journalism’s problem, rather than a solution to perceived problems of bias and partiality.[13]

But Brent Cunningham, managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, has observed that despite this discontent and self-reflection, “nothing replaced objectivity as journalism’s dominant norm.”[14] In fact, he notes, “a cottage industry of bias police has sprung up,” leading to “hypersensitivity among the press to charges of bias,” which in turn reinforces the problematic adherence to a standard of “objectivity” that “can trip us up on the way to ‘truth.’” [15]

Truth. How about truth for a goal? “We may not have a journalism of truth because we haven’t demanded one,” the cultural critic Neal Gabler wrote in response to the media’s performance in covering the health care debate.[16] He noted that by simply reporting the latest guided missile from Sarah Palin or Rush Limbaugh, the media “marshal facts, but they don’t seek truth. They behave as if every argument must be heard and has equal merit, when some are simply specious.” He added that those who seek a platform know that the mainstream media will refrain from serving as a referee for fear of being accused of taking sides. The result, Gabler concluded, is a journalism of “silly reportorial ping-pong at best and badly misleading information at worst.”[17]

One of broadcast television’s most acclaimed news programs, the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, unfortunately has come to exemplify this problem. It almost never presents a point of view without, in the same segment, providing a platform for the opposite view, and its moderators often sit passively as the panelists rebut one another. Viewers have recently begun to complain about this format. Michael Getler, the Public Broadcasting System’s ombudsman, wrote in 2008 that the complaining viewers have a point. He said there were too many segments “in which Democratic and Republican strategists simply contradict each other, often leaving the viewing audience numb and angry. There are simply too many of these in which the viewer is sacrificed on the altar of ‘balanced’ news coverage that actually does not inform.”

The “key to making these segments useful is the interviewer,” he said, “who must be prepared to challenge guests, not just with the other person’s opinion, but with facts and alternative analysis that helps viewers judge what is being said. Challenge and confrontation often does not seem to be in the NewsHour playbook.”[18]

Getler’s criticism has gone largely unheeded inside the NewsHour. During the health care debate in Congress, Judy Woodruff, the moderator of a segment on the subject, failed to challenge a series of unsupported assertions made by a guest, the former Republican Congressman and House majority leader Dick Armey, a leading critic of health care reform.

(Digression – note that the mainstream media refrained from using the word “reform,” instead often using the unwieldy phrase “health care overhaul,” “overhaul” being regarded in the newsroom as a neutral word while “reform” implies that what is being proposed is better than what currently exists.)

Viewers complained to Michael Getler, the PBS ombudsman, who passed the complaints on to the program’s executive producer. The producer, noting that Ms. Woodruff had turned to the other guest, a reform advocate named Richard Kirsch, to invite a reply, responded in defense of the moderator: “Seems to me the guests were asked to rebut one another. Judy was the moderator, not the judge.” Getler said in his column that the incident raised the question “of whether moderators, if not serving as judges, need to at least challenge guests more forcefully, especially on subjects such as health care where the degree of falsehoods and fear-mongering has reached very high levels, so that the viewer has a better chance of getting at least close to the truth.”[19]

There’s that pesky word “truth” again. Why is it just so difficult to make the search for truth the highest journalistic value?

Well, for one thing, the notion that there exists one Truth to be spoken or published exists in some tension with core First Amendment values. After all, “the First Amendment recognizes no such thing as a ‘false’ idea,” the Supreme Court tells us.[20] The familiar image of the marketplace of ideas suggests ideas competing freely for public favor, unvetted, unranked, and unregulated by some superintending power.

For another thing, the word Truth lacks a single definition. To report, without elaboration, a politician’s charge concerning the “death panels” in the health care bill is – assuming the politician is quoted accurately – certainly to report the truth. Does such a report convey a more useful or meaningful truth, the contextual truth of the situation? Obviously not. But just as obviously, it would not require a correction.

In their book, The Elements of Journalism, Kovach and Rosenstiel make a distinction between two kinds of truth: correspondence and coherence. “For journalism, these tests roughly translate into getting the facts straight and making sense of the facts.”[21] They call for a “journalism of verification” to replace a “journalism of assertion:” “A more conscious discipline of verification is the best antidote to being overrun by a new journalism of assertion.”[22]

Fairness and objectivity should be regarded as tools to that end, they maintain, rather than as ends in themselves.[23]

One further problem is that the he-said, she-said format is increasingly the best that a reporter can do under the severe time pressure of being required to file continuous updates for a web site. In an article in The New Yorker entitled “Non-Stop News,” Ken Auletta quoted reporters and press secretaries on what it means to have to feed the web without being able to take the time to report or even think. “Instead of seeking context or disputing a claim,” Auletta writes, “reporters often simply get two opposing quotes and file a he said/ she said story.”[24]

I would like to conclude these reflections with a case study in what I regard as the perils of the journalism of assertion, as practiced by our finest newspaper.


er the last few years, the name David B. Rivkin started showing up in the columns of the New York Times. From the manner in which he was quoted in articles relating to various sub-topics concerning the “war on terror,” Mr. Rivkin appeared to be an expert on just about any development for which the Bush administration needed defending – or for which a federal judge who ruled against the White House needed a thrashing.

For example, in August 2006, when a federal district judge in Detroit declared that the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program was unconstitutional, Mr. Rivkin had this to say in the New York Times account of the decision: “It is an appallingly bad opinion, bad from both a philosophical and technical perspective, manifesting strong bias.”[25] Mr. Rivkin was identified in the article as “an official in the administrations of President Ronald Reagan and the first President Bush.”

There was no indication of what might have given him the “philosophical perspective” to criticize this court decision so forcefully, or of what evidence he possessed of “strong bias” on the part of the judge, Anna Diggs Taylor.

When another judge ruled that some prisoners held by the United States at the Bagram air force base in Afghanistan had the right to petition for habeas corpus, there was Mr. Rivkin again. He warned that the ruling “gravely undermined” the country’s “ability to detain enemy combatants for the duration of hostilities worldwide.”[26] This time he was identified as “an associate White House counsel in the administration of the first President Bush.” Since that administration had ended 18 years earlier, I found myself wondering what current expertise Mr. Rivkin possessed that led him to make such a harsh assessment of this new decision.

A check of the Times database reveals that since 2006, Mr. Rivkin has been quoted at least 31 times in articles concerning the detainees at Guantanamo Bay (12 times); detainees at Bagram; executive privilege and presidential authority; targeted killing; Iraq; Abu Ghraib; the performance of Attorney General Mukasey; and the Central Intelligence Agency and its interrogation policies. The descriptions of his role and his implied expertise varied from story to story, but the quote was always to the same effect: a strong defense of President Bush and his policies.

To the extent that David Rivkin has any relevant expertise, the basis for it is not disclosed on his law firm’s web site, which contains a full-page biography. He is a partner in the international law firm of Baker Hostetler, identified as a “member of the firm’s litigation, international and environmental groups.” The entry describes him as having “in-depth experience with various constitutional issues that are frequently implicated by federal regulatory statutes, including commerce clause-, appointments clause-, and due process-related issues, as well as First and Tenth amendment-related matters.” He has “extensive experience in international arbitration and policy advocacy on a wide range of international and domestic issues, including treaty implementation, multilateral and unilateral sanctions, corporate law, environmental and energy matters (with an emphasis on policy, regulatory and enforcement issues.)”

His qualifications for practicing law in these areas are evident: during his federal government service in the Reagan and first Bush administrations, he worked on domestic regulatory issues, with a specialty in oil and natural gas. He worked in the Office of Policy Development in the Justice Department and worked for Vice President Bush as legal advisor to the Counsel to the President, later becoming special assistant for domestic policy to Vice President Dan Quayle and associate general counsel in the Department of Energy.[27]

The more I read, the more mystified I became. An article on the prospect that President Obama might transfer some Guantanamo detainees to the United States included a warning from Mr. Rivkin that classified information might be made public during trials in civilian courts – “a danger that David B. Rivkin, an official in the Reagan Justice Department, calls ‘the conviction price.’”[28] When details of the C.I.A.’s interrogation regime were reported in August, the article contained these sentences: “ ‘Elaborate care went into figuring out the precise gradations of coercion,’ said David B. Rivkin Jr., a lawyer who served in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. ‘Yes, it’s jarring. But it shows how both the lawyers and the nonlawyers tried to do the right thing.’”[29]

An article about President Obama’s decision to retain the military commission system for trying detainees at Guantanamo included this:

“David B. Rivkin Jr., a Washington lawyer who was an official in the Reagan administration, said the decision suggested that the Obama administration was coming to accept the Bush administration’s thesis that terror suspects should be viewed as enemy fighters, not as criminal defendants with all the rights accorded by American courts. ‘I give them great credit for coming to their senses after looking at the dossiers’ of the detainees, Mr. Rivkin said.” [30]

And an article on the prison sentence meted out by a Federal District Judge to a man who admitted having trained with and offering his services to Al Qaeda offered the critique from David Rivkin that the Obama administration should have used a military commission instead of sending the defendant, Al-Marri, to federal court. The federal courts are “a crapshoot,” he said, while military commissions “arrive at a better judgment, being comprised of warriors . . . .”[31] Mr. Rivkin was described in this article as “a lawyer who served in the administrations of President Reagan and the first President Bush.”

I should note that Mr. Rivkin’s usefulness extends beyond the pages of the Times. A Washington Post analysis of the release of the so-called torture memos included this paragraph:

“David B. Rivkin Jr., a lawyer at Baker Hostetler who supported the detainee policies, says the memos’ ‘careful and nuanced legal analysis’ . . . produced ‘eminently reasonable results.’”[32]

I give the Post writer credit here by identifying Mr. Rivkin as a lawyer in private practice who simply supports one side of the issue, rather than trying to gussy-up his credentials by referring to his long-ago federal service.

David Rivkin even showed up in a New York Times cultural feature, an article about the documentary film, “Taxi to the Dark Side,” which took a highly critical stance toward the Bush administration’s interrogation policies. Mr. Rivkin, introduced to readers as “a lawyer in the administrations of President Ronald Reagan and the first President Bush,” becomes the voice of the “other side” in an account of the film and interview with the filmmaker. “It’s pretty clear that it’s not policy and it’s pretty clear that these things are prosecuted,” Mr. Rivkin is quoted as saying. The article goes on: “Mr. Rivkin said the military’s performance by historical standards has been quite good in the recent conflicts. ‘In all the good wars,’ he said, ‘we have had some pretty bad records.’”[33]

I decided to try to see how it was that David Rivkin had emerged, Zelig-like, into daily journalism. I asked reporters who had quoted him whether they had called him for a quote or whether he had called them first. I will omit the names of the reporters, because they did not expect to be identified in a public lecture like this.

“He reached out,” one told me, noting that “I’ve known him a long time.”

Another said he had been referred to Mr. Rivkin by a conservative think tank.

“I called him,” another said. “I have quoted him a few times in the weird role of surrogate for the Bush administration. . . It was to the point that Bush administration officials would suggest him when they chose not to speak for themselves on Gitmo.” Although this article did identify Mr. Rivkin by his prior federal service, the reporter observed to me: “I am not sure he did national security in Reagan or Bush I.”

From another reporter: “I called him. I have known him for years. He is a good go-to proxy to articulate the Bush team’s national security legal policy views.”

And from still another: “I called Rivkin, who has been defending the Bush policies for so long (especially interrogation) that he knows them as well as the human rights folks.” Noting that the article contained criticism of the policies, the reporter added: “I thought it would be unfair not to make the opposite point.”

At this point in my lecture, I probably don’t have to tell you what I think of this kind of “reporting.” I find it particularly troubling to use Mr. Rivkin to criticize federal court decisions. When a federal district judge issues a decision, there is no “other side” to the story – the decision is the decision. The “other side” is contained in the briefs presenting the argument that the judge rejected. But digging up the briefs, reading them, and summarizing them takes more work that accepting an ad hominem sound bite from someone willing to answer any call.

I actually don’t mean to be critical of David Rivkin, a man with whom I have a perfectly pleasant personal relationship. As a surrogate, a “go-to proxy,” he is simply filling a role assigned to him by reporters and – let’s assume – editors who accept unquestionably the notion that every story has another side that it is journalism’s duty to present. I hope I have persuaded you tonight that there is another side to that story – one that calls on journalists to do their best to provide not just the facts, but also – always — the truth.

[1] Bill Carter, Networks Deplore Fox Ad On Coverage of Protests. The New York Times, Sept. 19, 2009, B3.

[2] Mary Pat Flaherty et al., “In the Aftermath, Tormented By What-ifs,” Washington Post, Dec. 31, 2009, A1.

[3] Joseph Goldstein & Marc Lacey, Man Charged in Tucson Shootings Had Researched Assassins, Official Says, The New York Times, Jan. 27, 2011, A16.

[4] Martin Arnold, The Greatest times Editorial, Ever? Traditions of The Times,

[5] Larry Rohter, Ad on Sex Education Distorts Obama Policy. The New York Times, Sept. 11, 2008, A18.

[6] Jim Rutenberg and Julie Bosman, Book Attacking Obama Hopes to Repeat ’04 Anti-Kerry Feat. The New York Times, August 13, 2008, A1. (reporting on “Obama Nation” by Jerome R. Corsi.)

[7] Alicia C. Shepard, Harsh Interrogation Techniques of Torture? (June 23, 2009).

[8] Paul Taylor, See How They Run: Electing the President in an Age of Mediaocracy (Alfred A. Knopf, 1990) at ___.

[9] Jay Rosen, He Said, She Said Journalism: Lame Formula in the Land of the Active User. (April 12, 2009).

[10] Joan Didion, The Deferential Spirit, New York Review of Books, Sept. 19, 1996.

[11] Brent Cunningham, Rethinking Objective Journalism. (July 9, 2003).

[12] Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, The Elements of Journalism. Three Rivers Press (second edition, 2007) at 5.

[13] Id. at 6.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Neal Gabler, ‘Truth’ vs. ‘Facts’ from America’s Media. Los Angeles Times, August 23, 2009.

[17] Id.

[18] Michael Getler, The Ombudsman Column: Going to the Circus? (Dec. 22, 2008).

[19] Michael Getler, The Ombudsman Column: The Mailbag. (August 21, 2009).

[20] Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46, 51 (1988).

[21] Kovach and Rosenstiel, footnote 11 supra, at 42-43.

[22] Id. at 88.

[23] Id.

[24] Kan Auletta, “Non-Stop News,” The New Yorker, Jan. 25, 2010, pp. 38-47, at 42.

[25] Adam Liptak and Eric Lichtblau, Judge Finds Wiretap Actions Violate the Law, The New York Times, Aug. 18, 2006, A1.

[26] Charlie Savage, Judge Rules some Prisoners at Bagram Have Right to Habeas Corpus, The New York Times, April 3, 2009, A10.


[28] Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Obama Would Move Some Terror Detainees to U.S., The New York Times, May 22, 2009, A1.

[29] Scott Shane and mark Mazzetti, Records Show Strict Rules for C.I.A. Interrogations, The New York Times, August 26, 2009, A1.

[30] William Glaberson, Vowing More Rights for Accused, Obama Retains Tribunal System, The New York Times, May 16, 2009, A1.

[31] John Schwartz, Admitted Qaeda Agent Receives Prison Sentence, New York Times, Oct. 30, 2009, A22.

[32] R. Jeffrey Smith, Justice Dept. Memos’ Careful Legalese Obscured Harsh Reality, Washington Post, April 19, 2009, A4.

[33] Adam Liptak, The Power of Authority: A Dark Tale, The New York Times, Dec. 30, 2007, at __.


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