For Supreme Court buffs who watch C-SPAN, yesterday morning was one of disappointment. A promising panel discussion, “Covering the Court(s): Reporters on the Supreme Court Beat,” that included a bevy of court reporting superstars — like Charles Lane from The Washington Post and Dahlia Lithwick from Slate — was to be televised. But, at the last minute, the plug was pulled on the C-SPAN cameras because the queen bee of Supreme Court reporters, Linda Greenhouse of The New York Times refused to join the panel if the event was going to be covered by the wonky news channel.
According to people who were there, Greenhouse walked in, took one look at the lights and the camera equipment, and, “became infuriated,” said one person who was standing near her. As Greenhouse herself told me yesterday following the event, she then gave the organizer of the panel an ultimatum. “I told her she had a choice, either she could have me on the panel speaking candidly or she could have C-SPAN there.”
Greenhouse said that she had come prepared to speak to a “room of academics.” She added, “I didn’t want to have to modulate my comments for a national audience.”
The source of her fury seemed to be that she wasn’t warned that the event was going to be televised. But according to the organizer, Amy Gajda, a non-tenured professor from the University of Illinois who, with much difficulty, had managed to organize the star-studded panel and the media attention, an email was sent the night before telling them about the C-SPAN coverage. Other panelists have confirmed this, and fail to understand Greenhouse’s objection. Lyle Denniston, who covers the court for SCOTUSBlog, said, “The moderator of the panel had told me in an e-mail that it would be covered by TV. Television is part of the news media, and I strongly support its access to cover public events.”
To add to the strangeness of her reaction, Greenhouse did not then demand that the discussion be off the record, only that C-SPAN not film it. Sitting in the front row of the conference room was even an audience member with a press badge. He was not asked to leave.
Gajda, the organizer, found herself, “between a rock and a hard place.” She wanted the C-SPAN attention, but she also knew she would be doing a disservice to her audience if she excluded the marquee attraction, Greenhouse. “When we analyzed the way we did, very quickly, we realized that it would leave a very big hole on the panel,” Gajda said. “And we decided to place a priority on out first constituency, the members at the conference.”
Sending a C-SPAN crew is a big outlay for the low-budget network. The Vice-President of programming at C-SPAN, Terence Murphy, fired off an angry letter yesterday evening at the organization that put on the discussion, the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. “I must say, it’s perplexing as to why Ms. Greenhouse didn’t want to permit C-SPAN to cover her remarks, since our program archive lists 51 different events where we’ve covered her over the years,” wrote Murphy. “But the larger concern is why AEJMC organizers allowed Ms. Greenhouse’s view to prevail. If professors of journalism and working journalists taking part in a journalism education conference don’t stand up for open media access to public policy discussions, who will?”
Perhaps the longtime Times reporter has grown wary of too much public attention because of the bad press she received last summer after a speech she gave at Radcliffe College. Critiquing the actions of the Bush administration, she seemed to declare herself anti-war and against the pro-life movement, lamenting, among other things, the “hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism.” When these remarks were picked up by NPR, she was criticized by certain media critics, like Howard Kurtz, for exposing too much of her subjective viewpoint.
Maybe she’s just become more careful and didn’t want to risk saying anything controversial — or maybe she simply didn’t feel like appearing on television yesterday. Either way, the result was the same. At the very least, the public was denied the chance to listen in on what turned out to be an interesting discussion. And at worst, a New York Times reporter used the power that comes from being associated with the Times to prove nothing more than that she could get her way.
UPDATE: Linda Greenhouse has written a letter in response to C-SPAN in which she defends herself against their accusations. In it she claims that the “issue is not one of ‘open media access to public policy discussions,’” as C-SPAN’s Terence Murphy wrote in his letter, but “one of communication and simple courtesy.” Ignoring the question of whether she received an email warning her that C-SPAN was going to be present, Greenhouse writes, ” I learned about the plan to
cover the Supreme Court panel only when I showed up and saw the cameras. Prof. Gajda
told me yesterday that she had only learned at 5:00 p.m. the day before that C-Span
intended to cover our panel.”
She continues: “Some months ago, when I accepted the invitation to speak to a roomful of journalism
professors, no one said anything about a nationally televised event. There is a difference
between appearing before a room of 50 or so professors and speaking on national
television, as I’m sure you recognize. I did not agree to do the latter, and notwithstanding
my willingness—as you note—to appear on C-Span dozens of times in the past, whether
to do so remains, it seems to me, a matter in which I still have a say. I am neither a C-
Span employee nor a public official. My past voluntary appearances do not give C-Span
rights in perpetuity to broadcast events at which I appear, whether I agree or not. In fact,
you may or may not be aware that over the years I have from time to time declined to
appear at events that I had assumed were to be private when, at the last minute, I was
informed that C-Span coverage was a fait accompli.”