Linda J. Greenhouse ’68, the New York Times reporter and former Crimson editor who has covered the U.S. Supreme Court for 30 praise-filled years, will retire from her beat, the newspaper confirmed yesterday.
It was not immediately clear when the Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, who has covered the courts for longer than all but one supreme justice has served, would finalize the details of her severance from the Times. But several connoisseurs of the court system expressed their disappointment with the news yesterday.
Greenhouse, who is 61, took the newspaper up on its offer to buy out her contract in exchange for her departure.
“This is shocking and it’s most unfortunate. However good a deal Linda got out of it, the country is so much worse off,” said constitutional law scholar Laurence H. Tribe ’62 . “There’s never been anybody who’s covered the Supreme Court with the sensitivity, the depth, and the perception that she has.”
A Government concentrator at Radcliffe, Greenhouse joined the Times only a month after graduating magna cum laude in 1968. Ten years later, she found herself assigned to the paper’s Washington bureau as the Supreme Court correspondent—a beat she has held ever since.
Greenhouse’s seniority and studied attention to her subject matter made her an object of tremendous respect among her colleagues in Washington, said Jeffrey R. Toobin ’82 a former Crimson editorial chair who covers the courts for The New Yorker magazine.
Never was Greenhouse’s influence more evident, Toobin said, than the December evening when the Supreme Court passed its ruling on the contentious 2000 presidential election. The decision was released late at night.
“There probably were 75 [reporters] there and it was pretty obvious that everyone was looking to Linda for answers on what [the decision] said and what it meant,” Toobin said. “Her status as first among equals was never more clear than on that night.”
The eminent reporter’s influence reached above the ranks of her peers.
“[Justice Stephen G.] Breyer once said to me if we didn’t think we did something and Linda thinks we did then I assume she must be right,” Toobin said, “I assume that’s indicative of how she’s viewed there.”
Many of Greenhouse’s devotees cited the clarity and accessibility of her accounts of court proceedings and decisions as the key to her influence.
“I think her reports of oral argument have been better than any accounts of oral argument that I’ve ever seen,” said Harvard law professor Richard H. Fallon.
Greenhouse even educated professors, Tribe said.
“There’s no one and I literally mean no one—even as a senior professor specializing in constitutional law—no one is so experienced that they don’t learn something new from her coverage. She is a national treasure.”
THE WEATHER OF THE TIMES
Greenhouse’s buyout agreement comes as the Times attempts to cut roughly 100 jobs in the face of a pressing economic situation.
In an e-mail circulated to the Times newsroom yesterday and released to The Crimson, Executive Editor Bill Keller referred to what he called “rough economic weather” before presenting the buyouts.
Keller told the Times newsroom that layoffs could be avoided if “enough of you...see some personal advantage in volunteering to accept a severance package as a way to transition smoothly into retirement, or to re-imagine your career, outside the newsroom.”
Greenhouse could not be reached for comment yesterday, but Alex S. Jones, also a former Pulitzer Prize winner, who covered the press for the Times for nearly a decade, said yesterday that she had spoken in the past about retiring.
“I know that she has been talking about stepping away from that job,” said Jones, the director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy. “But I have always hoped against hope that she would simply go on.”
Jones said Keller’s buyout offer may have helped speed Greenhouse out of the job.
“Would Linda have retired now without a buyout? I don’t know,” he said. “So I think you’d have to say that the economic buyout hastened her departure.”
‘THE KIND YOU HATE TO LOSE’
Greenhouse’s long career at the Times has not gone unmarked by controversy.
The reporter has drawn criticism in the past for speaking out on issues related to her coverage. In 1989, after participating in a march in support of abortion rights, Greenhouse was cited by the paper’s Washington editor as having “acknowledge[d] that this was a mistake.” The Times maintains a policy that its reporters should avoid publicly expressing views and opinions outside of what would be allowed in the paper.
But in two speaking engagements at Harvard Law School and the Radcliffe Institute in June 2006, Greenhouse spiced her remarks with a bit of her own beliefs.
“I could tell you that rule of law is hanging by a thread stressed by law-free zones like Guantanamo Bay, Congress, or other places,” said Greenhouse to her Law School audience. “I could tell you that the Supreme Court may be our last, best hope, but I’m a journalist who after all are not suppose to have opinions.”
Greenhouse’s remarks two days later at a Radcliffe Institute luncheon, that the government had “turned its energy and attention away from upholding the rule of law” would draw the criticism of the Times’ public editor, who issued a reminder that the “merest perception of bias in a reporter’s personal views can plant seeds of doubt that may grow in a reader’s mind.”
Despite the remarks, former newspaper man Jones said he was “absolutely sure” that the paper did not want to see Greenhouse go.
“Linda is exactly the kind of superb and experienced reporter that a quality news organization hates to lose,” said Jones. “Inevitably the very best people decide they want to retire or go do something else.”
—Staff Writer Christian B. Flow can be reached at email@example.com.