Fighting #fakenews: A conversation with Shorenstein’s Heidi Radford Legg

Photo via the Shorenstein Center.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

In just a few years, #fakenews has moved to the top of what we worry about when we worry about the news media.

Recently the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, based at Harvard’s Kennedy School, released a report seeking to document efforts to fight fake news, from Facebook, Google, and Twitter to academic institutions, from entrepreneurial start-ups to nonprofit foundations. The report, titled “The Fight Against Disinformation in the U.S.: A Landscape Analysis,” was written by Heidi Radford Legg, a journalist who is the director of special projects at Shorenstein, and Joe Kerwin, a Harvard senior.

“Trust in news has fallen dramatically and the rise in polarizing content, created to look like news, is being driven by both profiteers and malevolent players,” Radford Legg and Kerwin write. “Add to this a president that undercuts the credibility of the press on a daily basis and who has declared the press as an ‘enemy of the people.’ American journalism, already shouldering practically non-existent revenue models that have led to the decimation of quality local news, is in deep defense.” (Disclosure: My work is briefly cited in the report.)

What follows is a lightly edited email interview that I conducted with Radford Legg.

Dan Kennedy: You’ve provided a comprehensive overview of efforts to fight disinformation. What is the main takeaway? How do you hope your paper will be used?

Heidi Radford Legg: When I arrived at the Shorenstein Center, as a journalist trained to give context to a situation and who had long worked in upstart or for-profit media, I was fascinated by all the people in academia and in the foundation world who were stepping up to solve this existential crisis for our society. It became immediately clear to me that this was the story. Here was Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, which essentially disrupted the newspaper classified revenue stream, giving $70 million to journalism and the fight against disinformation.

As an entrepreneurial journalist, having founded TheEditorial.com, I was all about disruption and innovation. However, we are now in this acute moment when a deluge of disinformation and misinformation plagues our information ecosystem — exponentially, thanks to this digital age. Local news revenue is being decimated, platforms are absorbing all of the attention economy dollars, and rogue players are penetrating our information pipeline. It is the perfect storm.

Thankfully, a few bold leaders have stepped in to try to put some guard rails in place while we wait for the platforms to self-regulate or be regulated. My hope is that this paper will inspire other funders and civic leaders to get involved, because the effects of disinformation and the breakdown of traditional journalism models are quickly eroding the ability to have an informed citizenry in our democracy.

Kennedy: You cite one of my heroes, Neil Postman, the author of “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”What do you think he would have to say about this media and cultural moment?

Radford Legg: I wonder if Postman might think he was too cheeky about the whole thing and should have warned us more desperately ­— the same way climate change advocates worry we are being too apathetic about the dire risks of climate change today. I will say, it is hard not to see that we are dumbing down as a society, with our attention span reduced to nanoseconds. I know some digital experts disagree with me and think we are at a point of great societal leaps with artificial intelligence. I am not there. I would take basic education on civics and critical thinking for all Americans, and an informed citizenry, at this point. Computer code is still binary. It is based on “this equals that.” While transformative and our future, I still believe in the ethical fortitude of the human when taught critical thinking and empathy.

Kennedy: Your section on how Facebook is fighting misinformation is appropriately skeptical, yet I sense that you accept the company’s assurances that it’s sincere about its efforts. I’m wondering if your views have changed since you finished writing this report given the never-ending stream of bad news coming out of the Zuckerborg. Siva Vaidhyanathan argues in his book “Antisocial Media” that Facebook can’t be fixed because it’s working the way it was designed to work. What do you think?

Radford Legg: I tried to stay unbiased in the reporting to list actual measures being taken by platforms at the time of the writing of this paper. I had two terrific Harvard student interns this summer, Joe Kerwin and Grace Greason, who spent hours tracking the media reports on measures the platforms were taking. We would compare the PR version to news articles by Wired, BuzzFeed, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Harvard’s Nieman Lab. You will remember that from April to August, there was a mad flurry of deplatforming of Facebook sites, scourging of Twitter accounts, and general clean-up by the social media giants ­— who likely knew they were being asked to testify in front of Congress in September. Our research leads up to the moment Twitter’s Jack Dorsey finally booted Alex Jones and Infowars off the site. We tried to stick to the facts.

I do think the platforms are taking steps, but what I would really like them to address is that they are now news organizations. Rather than media entertainment companies, they need to accept that they are owning the news, and it is time they begin to hire journalists and editors with a small percentage of the insane profits they reap in this new Attention Economy. This revenue, in the form of advertising fees, was what once funded local newsrooms, and that breakdown is part of the problem.

The Shorenstein Center’s Platform Accountability Project, IDLab, and Media Manipulation Case Studies Project are all working together to create a body of research and knowledge that will put pressure on the platforms and educate Congress on what is happening in the space. One way for people to join the effort is to fund our research at the Shorenstein Center. Our goal is to be at the intersection of media and politics and help inform legislation and policy around this urgent problem as we lead up to another Presidential election in 2020.

Kennedy: You describe an impressive set of initiatives by Google to help news organizations find their way toward financial sustainability and to keep disinformation out of its search results. Ultimately, though, I wonder if what Google really needs to do is work out a system of paying for the news content that it uses. I realize that’s probably outside the purview of your study, but do you have any thoughts on that?

Radford Legg: I write in the study that “one part of Google’s effort funds journalism while the other builds tools to sell back to them. Its approach is equal parts philanthropy and capitalism. Google’s tagline makes its intent clear: ‘To help journalism thrive in a digital age.’” The question remains, for whose benefit? Ours or their bottom line? I’m hoping for the former.

What I would really like to see is for the Google News Initiative, led by Richard Gingras, to fund a number of major research projects at leading media centers like ours around revenue models for local news. The Shorenstein Center’s Elizabeth Hansen has been studying membership models like the Texas Tribune and how small and medium-sized newsrooms compete in this global digital economy. Ethan Zuckerman at the MIT Media Lab is working on a project that could share ad revenue from major platforms with the journalists or outlets that wrote a particular story. Take Flint, Michigan. The journalists who broke that story should get the largest financial gain. Today, that is not the case. Google, Facebook, and any platform or major outlet profiting from the story with clicks, should help support that local journalism.

The platforms have all the access today. Facebook alone has 2 billion users and a cash balance of $41 billion and market cap of $407 billion. Google has a cash balance of $106 billion and a market cap of $731 billion. They should start to pay and hire vetted reporters and editors steeped in the tenets of journalism — to report facts and first-person accounts. One might say it is time they grow up and be the civic leaders in the room.

Kennedy: As you note, the Berkman Klein Center has documented asymmetric polarization, which shows that consumers of right-wing media are far more susceptible to disinformation than those whose sources are more mainstream or left-leaning. What can we do about this without arousing suspicions — and anger — that we are simply seeking to impose our own liberal and elitist views?

Radford Legg: Again I go back to local news. If people who are being radicalized on the web by polarized content were instead reading about the people who live next to them and consuming news about their own city’s innovation, challenges, and progress, I believe the country would be better off and less divided. Without a trusted and reliable source on the ground in their local communities, Americans are susceptible to dogma being sold by harvesters of the Attention Economy, who are polluting the information ecosystem with untruths and content intended to polarize and divide our nation.

We should work harder to be inclusive with those in other areas of the country. As reporters, the more we can cover those stories, the better for democracy. My dream is to find paths to having journalists funded in those towns who understand the people and culture, and who can bring local back into the national conversation. This will require funding, and that is where the platforms should step up.

Kennedy: We live at a time when the president himself is our leading source of disinformation, and he has managed to convince his most committed followers that he is the ultimate source of all truth. How difficult is it to fight against disinformation in such a climate?

Radford Legg: At the Shorenstein Center’s Theodore H. White Lecture, I sat at a table with a number of our Joan Shorenstein Fellows, of whom you were one. We debated this. Should we cover the president or should we ignore him and instead cover local news and stories of progress? Should we ensure that headlines don’t repeat lies? The table was divided. But at what point do we turn away from the media circus and return to the basics? What is going on in your city hall? What ideas are changing the way you live and work in your city, town, state? What can we as a nation learn from what is going on in Corning, New York, or Beaufort, North Carolina, Portland, Oregon or Maine, or McLean County, Kentucky? I am a local kid. I think that is where the lifeblood of a democracy lives.

Kennedy: Is there any hope?

Radford Legg: Always.

Today, given the dire state of revenue models for local news, we need the wealthiest and most influential to fund and promote the research and innovation experiments desperately needed today in local journalism, and we need everyone who believes in journalism to get involved, vote, and help bridge the polarization. The late Gerry Lenfest’s legacy gift in Philadelphia is a case study many of us are watching in local news. He put the fabled Philadelphia Inquirer and sister properties into a trust and endowed it with $20 million. That’s commitment to local and that is hope. Let’s hope it inspires more of the same.

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Bob Schieffer writes the book on old journalism, new media and #fakenews

Bob Schieffer recently talked with WGBH News’ Emily Rooney in this Facebook Live interview.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Is there a more amiable personality in television news than Bob Schieffer? The longtime CBS News journalist, who turned 80 earlier this year, harks back to a time when social consensus of a sort prevailed over the bitter polarization that defines the Age of Trump. Rather than get left behind, though, Schieffer has worked to understand the forces that are shaping the new media environment.

Now Schieffer and several of his colleagues have written a book that serves as a quick and useful survey of the current moment. “Overload: Finding the Truth in Today’s Deluge of News” is part guidebook, part lament for an era when people could at least agree on what they were arguing about. Schieffer quotes the late New York Times reporter Jim Naughton, who described the effects of the media fragmentation caused by the rise of Fox News and talk radio:

Now, we’re no longer basing our opinions on the same stuff — some folks get one set of facts from one outlet and other folks get another set of facts from another outlet, no wonder they come to different conclusions.

In retrospect, of course, the fragmentation described by Naughton seems rather benign compared to more recent developments such as the rise of white-nationalist outlets like Breitbart News and conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones of Infowars. And Schieffer does not like what he sees. Though Schieffer celebrates the cornucopia of news that digital media have made possible, he understands the problems that have come with that as well. As he once put it before a gathering at Harvard, “Now all the nuts can find each other.”

Parts of “Overload” are repurposed from “About the News,” a podcast that Schieffer hosts with his co-author, H. Andrew Schwartz of the Center for Strategic & International Studies. I cannot offer an unbiased view of “Overload.” In 2016 Schieffer and I overlapped as fellows at the Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy, part of the Harvard Kennedy School. He and Schwartz interviewed me on “About the News” to talk about my Shorenstein paper on Jeff Bezos’ ownership of The Washington Post. Schieffer also quotes me in “Overload” and blurbed “The Return of the Moguls,” my forthcoming book on Bezos, John Henry of The Boston Globe, and other wealthy newspaper publishers.

Schieffer examines the passing of the old, the rise of the new, and the phenomenon of “fake news,” which took the form of falsehoods and rumors even before the internet was flooded with viral content farms and Russian propaganda. “Since 9/11, we have come to realize that reporting accurate information is only part of our job; equally important is our responsibility to knock down false and misleading information and to do it as quickly as possible,” Schieffer writes. Then, too, we live at a time when the president of the United States denounces journalism he doesn’t like as “fake news,” thus reinforcing in the minds of his supporters that there is no fundamental difference between, say, the “failing” New York Times and the latest foolishness that Tucker Carlson is attempting to foist upon his viewers.

Among the journalists Schieffer interviews are Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron, New York Times Washington bureau chief Elisabeth Bumiller, Texas Tribune founder Evan Smith, and the veteran digital journalist Walt Mossberg. It is Mossberg who reminds us that the good old days weren’t always so good (“If an idealistic reporter wanted to write a story about how a local car dealer was ripping off the public and the car dealer was the newspaper’s biggest advertiser, a lot of those papers would have killed the story”) and who neatly describes the most serious problem created by the explosion of digital media outlets: “Today we have way more journalists, way more information providers, and way less curation.”

Schieffer closes on a note of humility, reminding his readers of the role of a free press at a time when the White House has labeled news organizations as “the enemy of the American People!”

“We are not the opposition party. We are reporters,” Schieffer writes. “Our role is simply to ask questions and to keep asking until we get an answer.” It’s no longer that simple, of course, and Schieffer knows it. But we would all be better off if we could return to a time when the president and the public understood as well as Schieffer does exactly what journalism’s role is. And isn’t.

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Trump’s accidental transparency does not negate his anti-free speech agenda

“Censorship” (cc) 2006 by Bill Kerr

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Talk is cheap. If President Trump actually followed through on his multifarious threats against the First Amendment, then those of us who report and comment on the news would already be on our way to a detention camp — a beautiful detention camp, for sure — somewhere in the empty spaces of Oklahoma.

He has, after all, threatened to undo the laws that protect journalists from frivolous libel suits. He has said that he would revoke Amazon’s (nonexistent) tax breaks in retaliation for the harsh coverage he’s gotten from The Washington Post, owned by Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos. His attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has said that he may unleash a wave of subpoenas that would force reporters to identify anonymous leakers. And just recently, Trump demanded a Senate Intelligence Committee investigation into media organizations that report what he calls “fake news” and suggested that the broadcast licenses held by NBC should be revoked.

But Trump in theory and Trump in practice are two entirely different things. Though his anti-press rhetoric can be frightening at times, his follow-through has been pretty much nonexistent. Meanwhile, as First Amendment expert Jameel Jaffer says, Trump could legitimately if inadvertently lay claim to presiding over “the most transparent administration in history,” to invoke a solemn promise by Barack Obama that unfortunately preceded eight years of stonewalling on public records as well as an unprecedented crackdown on leakers.

“To say that the Trump administration leaks like a sieve would be very unfair to sieves,” Jaffer said Tuesday evening at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. Moreover, Trump’s Twitter feed — he has tweeted more than 2,000 times since Election Day — offers a look into “the unvarnished presidential id,” Jaffer said, quoting Nixon biographer John Farrell.

Jaffer, currently the executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, had previously served as deputy legal director for the ACLU. His work on a lawsuit aimed at shaking loose documents from the George W. Bush administration resulted in the publication of the so-called torture memos — the legal rationale produced by the White House to justify waterboarding and other inhumane tactics used in questioning terrorism suspects.

Despite Jaffer’s backhanded praise for Trump, he is hardly sanguine. For one thing, he noted, Trump’s tweets come at us in such volume that they distract us and distort the public discourse. “We should be careful not to mistake noise for transparency,” he said. In addition, seeming openness in one realm is often used to mask efforts to cover up information elsewhere. For instance, the White House recently released an eight-minute video on its efforts to deal with the disastrous aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico while simultaneously removing statistics related to the relief effort from government websites.

Trump’s rhetorical attacks on the press — including his references to news organizations as “the enemy of the American people” — need to be taken seriously as well, Jaffer said. He called those attacks “an assault on transparency” aimed at undermining faith in the media, calling into question even “provable truths.” The effect, he said, is to replace journalists with Trump himself as the arbiter of what is true and false. And at least among his strongest supporters, he’s had some success. For instance, a Morning Consult/Politico poll released on Wednesday found that 46 percent of those surveyed “believe major news organizations fabricate stories about Trump.” That proportion rises to a stunning 76 percent among Republicans. (For a full breakdown, click here and turn to page 146.)

“If this is transparency at all,” Jaffer said, “it is transparency we should distrust and interrogate rather than applaud.”

My own fear — and I think Jaffer would agree — is that Trump has stirred up such hatred for the media (not that we were ever popular) that basic press protections could be in danger. Yes, you can believe that the courts will protect us; Trump’s Supreme Court justice, Neil Gorsuch, whatever his other shortcomings, seems as likely to support a robust First Amendment as his colleagues. But as Charles Pierce recently noted at Esquire.com, we are closer than you might think to the unthinkable prospect of a constitutional convention at which everything would be up for grabs, including the Bill of Rights. I do not assume that basic constitutional guarantees would survive in the current environment.

As I said, talk is cheap. But talk such as Trump’s cheapens the public discourse, giving people permission to indulge their hatreds and prejudices. We’re already seeing it happen.

At the end of Jaffer’s lecture, he was asked what makes him hopeful in this dark time. His response: The outpouring of protest against the racist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, including tens of thousands of people in Boston who demonstrated against hate. “It’s a great relief to me to see people coalescing around this stuff,” he said.

So is Trump a threat or a menace to the First Amendment? I think it’s important to separate Trump’s words from his actions. To this point, at least, the president’s anti-media rhetoric has had no more effect than his attacks on Obamacare (dismantledlast Thursday; revived with his support on Tuesday), or his ever-shifting views on tax cuts. My philosophy: Keep a close ear out for what he says — but don’t panic until he actually does something.

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Report shows how the media failed us in the 2016 campaign

Photo (cc) 2016 by Mike Mozart.
Photo (cc) 2016 by Mike Mozart.

In a close election, you can point to any single factor and say that was responsible for the outcome. The presidential election was not close in the popular vote (Hillary Clinton is ahead by 2.7 million votes), but the margin of victory in the states that put Donald Trump over the top in the Electoral College (Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin) was narrow indeed.

Now comes Thomas E. Patterson of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, part of Harvard’s Kennedy School, to tell us that the press failed in its coverage of the general-election campaign. Plenty of us have been making the same argument, though I tend to believe that the coverage of Trump was so wildly negative that the more plausible explanation is his voters knew and didn’t care.

But Patterson takes that into account. His data-based findings show that coverage of Trump and Clinton was more or less equally negative. As a result, the landscape flattened out, with voters deciding Clinton’s emails were every bit as serious as Trump’s bragging about sexual assault, his hateful rhetoric, his dubious business dealings, and on and on and on. Patterson’s report is chock full of quotable excerpts. Here’s a good one:

[I]ndiscriminate criticism has the effect of blurring important distinctions. Were the allegations surrounding Clinton of the same order of magnitude as those surrounding Trump? It’s a question that journalists made no serious effort to answer during the 2016 campaign. They reported all the ugly stuff they could find, and left it to the voters to decide what to make of it. Large numbers of voters concluded that the candidates’ indiscretions were equally disqualifying and made their choice, not on the candidates’ fitness for office, but on less tangible criteria—in some cases out of a belief that wildly unrealistic promises could actually be kept.

Patterson also finds that Trump got more coverage than Clinton, giving him the opportunity to define both himself and her. Another important observation: Even when coverage of both candidates is uniformly negative, it tends to help the political right, since it’s conservatives who are promoting the message that government doesn’t work.

Clinton's "scandal" coverage, week by week, showing the effect of Comey's reopening of the email investigation.
Clinton’s “scandal” coverage, week by week, showing the effect of Comey’s reopening of the email investigation.

My own caveat about Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state: You can choose to believe that it was not a serious matter. In fact, I think there’s a strong case to be made that the importance of that issue was vastly overblown (see Matthew Yglesias at Vox).

But I also think it’s difficult to assign too much blame to the media given that James Comey, the director of the FBI, came forward in July to say Clinton had been “extremely careless” in her handling of classified information, and then reopened his investigation just before the election. Reporters report what the head of the FBI says, and if what he says is wrong and/or politically motivated, that generally doesn’t come out until much later. In any case, Comey took a tremendous amount of criticism in the media for his late hit on the Clinton campaign.

To get back to my opening point: The election was close enough that the media’s failures might very well have been sufficient to tilt the outcome toward Trump.

Patterson’s study was the fourth in a series dating back to the earliest days of the campaign, and was “based on an analysis of news reports by ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, the Los Angeles Times, NBC, the New York TimesUSA Today, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post.”

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Talking with Bob Schieffer about the future of news

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Recently I had the opportunity to record a podcast about my Shorenstein paper on the Washington Post under Jeff Bezos with CBS News legend Bob Schieffer and Andrew Schwartz of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Our conversation was posted on Thursday.

Schieffer and I met last spring at the Harvard Kennedy School, where I was a Joan Shorenstein Fellow and he was the Walter Shorenstein Media and Democracy Fellow. Schieffer was a friendly, gregarious presence, and my fellow fellows and I enjoyed his company immensely.

My Shorenstein paper is part of a book project with a working title of The Return of the Moguls, which will be about the Post under Bezos, the Boston Globe under Red Sox principal owner John Henry, and the Orange County Register under entrepreneur Aaron Kushner, to be published by ForeEdge in 2017.

Schieffer and Schwartz’s podcast, “About the News,” offers regular updates about various media topics. It’s available at iTunes.

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How Jeff Bezos is transforming the Washington Post

Bezos-Effect-featured-image

I’m excited to let you see what I worked on during the spring semester at the Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy: a paper on the reinvention of the Washington Post under Jeff Bezos titled “The Bezos Effect.” It’s long, but I also wrote a summary version for my friends at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

My time as a Joan Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School was incredibly rewarding. An expanded version of my paper will appear in my book-in-progress, which has a working title of The Return of the Moguls and which will be published by ForeEdge, the trade imprint of University Press of New England, in 2017.

Millionaires, billionaires, and the future of newspapers

tumblr_static_policycast_logoHard to believe, but my time as a Joan Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School will be ending soon. Recently I recorded an HKS PolicyCast podcast under the expert guidance of host Matt Cadwallader. We talked about my research regarding wealthy newspaper owners and whether the innovations they’ve introduced may show the way for others. I hope you’ll give it a listen.

As I’ve written before, I’m working on a book that will largely be about three such owners—Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who bought the Washington Post in 2013; Red Sox principal owner John Henry, who announced he would purchase the Boston Globe just three days before Bezos made his move; and greeting-card executive Aaron Kushner, whose time as publisher of the Orange County Register ended in 2015, but whose print-centric approach made him perhaps the most closely watched newspaper owner of 2012-’13.

Bezos and the Post will be the subject of the paper I’m writing for Shorenstein, so—in case any of you folks at the Globe were wondering—I’ve suspended my reporting on the Globe for the time being. I’ll be back.

Talking about Jeff Bezos’s ownership of the Washington Post

Joan Shorenstein Fellows (from left): Joanna Jolly of the BBC; me; Johanna Dunaway of Texas A&M University; and Marilyn Thompson of Politico.
Joan Shorenstein Fellows (from left): Joanna Jolly of the BBC; me; Johanna Dunaway of Texas A&M University; and Marilyn Thompson of Politico.

On Tuesday the Joan Shorenstein Fellows at Harvard’s Kennedy School spoke about our research projects; the audio is now online and here’s what you’ll find. More specifically, I talked about Jeff Bezos’s ownership of the Washington Post and what (if any) lessons that holds for the newspaper business.

Linda Greenhouse dissects our partisan Supreme Court

Linda Greenhouse
Linda Greenhouse

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Just as Congress and the broader electorate are hopelessly divided along partisan and ideological lines, so, too, is the Supreme Court.

Before the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, there were four liberals, four conservatives, and one centrist—Anthony Kennedy. All four liberals were appointed by Democratic presidents and all four conservatives (plus Kennedy) by Republicans.

And now a partisan battle has broken out over Scalia’s replacement. Despite President Obama’s choice of a respected moderate, federal appeals court judge Merrick Garland, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has vowed not even to take up the nomination. Instead, McConnell insists the decision should be left to the next president.

It’s a dispiriting scenario—and a historical anomaly. As the retired New York Times Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse pointed out Tuesday, we only have to look at fairly recent history to observe a very different dynamic.

After all, President Dwight Eisenhower appointed Earl Warren to the chief justice’s position, and Warren turned out (to Eisenhower’s chagrin) to be one of the most liberal justices in the court’s history. President John F. Kennedy appointed Byron White, who was liberal on civil rights but deeply conservative on social issues. And unlike today, when advocates expend most of their energy trying to persuade just one justice, Anthony Kennedy, years ago there were regularly three, four, or more justices who might vote either way.

“I’m deeply concerned as a citizen and as someone who cares about the court and about the consequences of the politicization of the court,” Greenhouse said. “The Roberts court is allowing the court to be used as a tool of partisan warfare.” As an example, she cited the court’s decision to rule on the legality of Obama’s executive order stopping the deportation of some undocumented immigrants—a decision that she said was accompanied by an overreaching aside questioning whether Obama’s order violated the Constitution.

Greenhouse, who currently teaches at Yale Law School and who still writes online commentaries about the court for the Times, spoke at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, part of Harvard’s Kennedy School. She offered a range of dyspeptic opinions on the political environment both inside and outside the court. To wit:

• On Justice Scalia’s legacy. “I think he degraded the discourse of the court, frankly,” Greenhouse said. “His snarky dissenting opinions were ill-advised and enabled snarkiness in others. I think his, quote, originalist understanding of constitutional interpretation goes nowhere. That died with him.” She added: “He was a very colorful figure and great at calling attention to himself. He was kind of a cult figure. But I don’t think he’ll have much lasting impact.”

• On McConnell’s refusal to consider Obama’s appointment of Judge Garland to the court. “It’s truly unprecedented. … It’s totally cynical. It’s totally playing to the base,” Greenhouse said. She also disagreed with an observation by Shorenstein Center interim director Tom Patterson that Obama should have chosen a woman or a member of a minority group who would be more appealing to Democratic voters. “The brilliance of this nomination,” she said, is that the Garland choice will make Republicans “squirm” because he is exactly the sort of moderate they had earlier said they would confirm.

• On the Supreme Court’s order that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reconsider the state’s ban on stun guns. By custom, Greenhouse said, the Supreme Court would make such a decision without comment. But Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas added a caustic opinion suggesting the SJC had put a woman’s safety at risk. “Something’s not right here,” she said. “The idea is you don’t wash your dirty linen in public. … They thought they had to enlighten us with this 10-page screed.”

Greenhouse said that one way to make the court less politicized would be to put more (as in any) politicians on it. At one time during the Warren era, she said, not a single member of the court had served as a federal judge. Warren himself had been governor of California. More recently, Sandra Day O’Connor had served as an elected official in Arizona before entering the judiciary.

“I think a diversity of characteristics on the Supreme Court is very helpful,” she said.

Given that many Supreme Court decisions can go either way (after all, Greenhouse added, the reason most cases are before the court in the first place is because federal appeals courts in different jurisdictions reached opposite conclusions), a politician’s willingness to seek compromise might sometimes be superior than the certainty with which judges with legal backgrounds often act.

WGBH News contributor Dan Kennedy is a Joan Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

Talking about blogging at the Kennedy School

Here is the slideshow for a talk I gave earlier today on blogging. And here is the longer post on which it is based.

Many thanks to the Harvard Kennedy School’s Communications Program and the Shorenstein Center for having me.