Does Linda Greenhouse Have a Conflict of Interest?

Linda Greenhouse of the New York Times is one of the nation's best known and well-respected Supreme Court reporters. She also has an undisclosed conflict of interest in cases relating to military tribunals and the war on terror, according to Ed Whelan. In a series of posts (see here, here, here, and here), Whelan argued that Greenhouse should have disclosed to her readers that her husband, Eugene Fidell, is President of the National Institute of Military Justice and has participated as an attorney in cases before the Court that Greenhouse covered. Most notably, Fidell was counsel of record for this amicus brief in Hamdan v. Rumsefeld filed on behalf of the NIMJ and D.C. Bar Association.

NYT Public Editor Clark Hoyt addressed the charges yesterday. Hoyt reports that Greenhouse the NYT editors dismiss any concerns about a conflct.

Dean Baquet, the Washington bureau chief, called the conflict "abstract" and said that Fidell and his institute were minor figures in the cases. Greenhouse said her husband does not represent any prisoners, and "there is to my mind a significant difference between representing a party in a case and taking a position on an issue raised by a case."
Hoyt also reports that more recently Fidell has refrained from signing NIMJ briefs in detainee-related cases covered by Greenhouse so as to avoid any appearance of a conflict.

To Greenhouse's credit, she reportedly raised the issue of a potential conflict before covering the first case in which her husband was involved. According to Hoyt, her editors did not see a problem because Fidell did not represent a party in the case, although he did represent amici and headed an organization with an intense interest in the litigation. Nonetheless, Hoyt thinks the Times should have done more.

Lee Wilkins, a professor of journalism at the University of Missouri and editor of The Journal of Mass Media Ethics, said, "Conflict of interest is practically the only place in ethics where perceptions matter almost as much as what is the case." Like it or not, the perception is that Greenhouse is writing about something in which her husband is a player — and The Times isn't telling the public. Newspapers routinely question public officials in similar circumstances.

What would I have done differently?

First, I would not have removed Greenhouse from the story. As Wilkins said, if The Times did that, "we have knowingly given our readers less than our best." But after the first conversation between Greenhouse and Taubman, The Times should have clued in readers.

Second, I would have practiced what Steele called "transparency with accountability," revisiting the issue from time to time, certainly with each new case, to determine Fidell's level of participation and whether the initial decision should be reconsidered. Taubman recalls doing that, but when Baquet became bureau chief last March, he was not told of Taubman's understanding with Greenhouse. And, despite the guidelines, nobody told Craig Whitney, the standards editor.

Finally, I think The Times should systematically disclose more about what Steele termed the intersections between the personal and professional lives of its journalists. This could be done in biographies on the newspaper's Web site. Greenhouse's biography says, "She is married to Eugene R. Fidell, a lawyer." That is not enough.

Bill Keller, the executive editor, said, "I happily endorse that approach." But he said he does not want to single out Greenhouse for this treatment because it would appear to be a tacit rebuke in the face of a partisan assault.

The point is not to punish Greenhouse, who does not deserve that. It is to make the newspaper less vulnerable to attacks like Whelan's.

One thing I don't get about Hoyt's column is that if, as he argues, there is a need for greater "transparency and accountability" in cases like this, how is noting potential conflicts on the paper's website sufficient? If there is enough of an apparent conflict to justify disclosure, then it seems plain the disclosure should occur in (or alongside) the article itself. After all, why should a reader have to conduct research to find a potential conflict? Why should readers of the NYT's print edition be denied such information?

For his part, Whelan has a three-part response to Hoyt's column on here, here, and here.

NOTE: In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that Whelan and I are both contributors to NRO's Bench Memos, which is where Whelan's charges have been published.

UPDATE: Dahlia Lithwick and Emily Bazelon rush to Greenhouse's defense. Meanwhile, Whelan has yet a fourth entry in his response to Hoyt's column.

In reading over the comment thread below, I find it interesting how rapidly people rush to reductio ad absurdem arguments here, as if acknowledging that Greenhouse may have had a sufficient conflict to justify minimal disclosure in stories about the handful of cases in which her husband's outfit filed briefs would somehow open the floodgates. This seems to be a fairly simple and straightforward way to handle the appearance of a potential conflict. For good or ill, we regularly assume that the interests of an individual are influenced by the interests of his or her spouse. Political journalists typically disclose if they have a spouse who works for a candidate or official whom they are discussing. Nina Easton, for instance, routinely notes that her husband is a Romney advisor when discussing Republican candidates on the Fox News Channel, and NRO's Jonah Goldberg would regularly note that his wife worked for Attorney General John Aschroft when he wrote about the AG. By the same token, I think this whole hullabaloo would have been avoided — the Whelan critiques and the Hoyt column (which is not the first Public Editor column on Greenhouse) — had the NYT simply provided more information about the work of Greenhouse's husband in cases she covered, even it was only as an amicus.

FURTHER UPDATE: Ed Whelan responds to Lithwick and Bazelon here.