Does a reporter have a duty to appear on C-SPAN?

Media criticism.
Aug. 10 2007 6:11 PM

The Gas Over Linda Greenhouse

Does a reporter have a duty to appear on C-SPAN?

Linda Greenhouse. Click image to expand.
Linda Greenhouse

The Columbia Journalism Review portrays New York Times reporter Linda Greenhouse as a petulant prima donna today in a post titled "The Greenhouse Effect: Hurricane Linda blows C-SPAN cameras away."

Greenhouse was one of a half-dozen Supreme Court reporters (including Slate's Dahlia Lithwick) who agreed to talk about their beat at the convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, now being held in Washington. Greenhouse says she first learned that C-SPAN was covering the event when she arrived at the classroom-sized meeting room and saw the channel's cameras. Other panelists had received e-mails the day before informing that C-SPAN would be recording the event, but Greenhouse had not. She protested the cameras, and CJR's Gal Beckerman writes:

[A]t the last minute, the plug was pulled on the C-SPAN cameras because the queen bee of Supreme Court reporters, Linda Greenhouse of TheNew York Times refused to join the panel if the event was going to be covered by the wonky news channel.

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Not so, says Greenhouse. She says she informed AEJMC that C-SPAN cameras would inhibit her from freely expressing herself but never threatened to bolt the session. Greenhouse gave a similar account to the convention's own reporter, who wrote that AEJMC was responsible for dismissing the cameras. (Amy Gajda, who moderated the panel, did not respond to a phone call for comment about the furor.)

Far from being C-SPAN averse, Greenhouse has appeared on the channel so many times you could launch C-SPAN 4 tomorrow and fill it with Greenhouse reruns. According to C-SPAN Vice President Terence Murphy, Greenhouse has appeared at 51 different events covered by the channel.  (Green-SPAN, anyone?)

Greenhouse says "the principle of the thing" made her say no to the cameras. "There's a difference between speaking to 50 professors and speaking on national TV," she says, "even in the Internet era." In a letter to C-SPAN's Murphy, Greenhouse notes that "over the years," she's declined to appear at events she assumed were private but then learned at the 11th hour "that C-Span coverage was a fait accompli." In essence, her argument is that she was invited to a dinner party that the organizers decided—without properly notifying her—to turn into Woodstock II.

As C-SPAN packed away its cameras at the Renaissance Washington Hotel, I was down the hall serving on a different AEJMC panel. How would I have felt if I had been asked to appear on the channel on the same short notice? Grouchy. My assignment was to comment on the oral presentations given by four academics on the topic of myth, lies, and journalism history. Because I had only a vague idea of what three of the four presenters were going to say, I couldn't really prepare anything substantive. I don't think I made a fool out of myself, but I might feel otherwise had my schematic remarks been recorded and I ended up viewing them on C-SPAN.

CJR'sBeckerman writes that Greenhouse may have "used the power that comes from being associated with the Times to prove nothing more than that she could get her way." That speculation would have bite if somebody could prove, for example, that Greenhouse demands that Washington Week's producers serve only yellow M&Ms in its green room as a condition of appearing on the show. But they can't. Greenhouse can be stubborn, but I've never known her to lord it over others. Besides, what sort of diva agrees to appear gratis on a huge panel of colleagues to talk to a roomful of out-of-town academics about her profession? Case not proved.

Like other reporters who cover big beats for big media, Greenhouse gets the scrutiny she deserves—not only for her pieces but her extracurricular activities. A raft of criticism came her way in 2006 when she gave a Radcliffe Institute talk about the "law-free zones at Guantanamo Bay," the government's "sustained assault on women's reproductive freedom and the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism." Those were "statements of fact," she told the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz, not opinion. She continued:

The notion that someone cannot go and speak from the heart to a group of college classmates and fellow alums, without being accountable to self-appointed media watchdogs, means American journalism is in danger of strangling in its own sanctimony.

Greenhouse seems to have spoken her mind at the AEJMC panel once things settled down. When asked about the "Greenhouse Effect" ($) that purportedly causes freshman Supreme Court justices to vote in such manner as to earn admiring copy from the Greenhouse pen, she quipped, "If there is such a thing as the Greenhouse Effect, I suppose it wasn't working this term."

******

Hey, I thought Nina Totenberg was the queen bee of Supreme Court reporters. Is this column payback for CJR trashingSlate's piece about Giuliani's daughter's Facebook page? No! I agree with CJR! Trash me at slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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