THE BLOG

Memo to the Times: Don't Make the Same Mistakes with Judy Miller You Made with Jayson Blair

10/07/2005 12:13 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

UPDATE: It looks like the Times' promised full accounting of the Judy Miller case won't be landing on our doorsteps (and computer screens) come Sunday morning after all, now that Pat Fitzgerald has decided that he'd like to have another sitdown with Miller on Tuesday about her conversations with Scooter Libby (Miller has already turned over more of her notes on these conversations).

Although Fitzgerald hasn't decided whether he'll bring Miller back in front of the grand jury, the Times' Bill Keller told the paper: "This development may slow things down, but we owe our readers as full a story as we can tell, as soon as we can tell it."

One upside: this "delay of Plame" will give Keller and the Times more of a chance to check out the memo below and heed my warning: Don't make the same mistakes you made with Jayson Blair!

***

When Judy Miller made her return to the New York Times newsroom on Monday, Bill Keller promised "a thoroughly reported piece in the pages of the New York Times, and soon." Looks like he'll keep at least the second part of that promise: word is the "full account" of the Miller case will appear this coming Sunday. We'll have to wait until then to see about the first part of Keller's vow.

On Monday, Keller told his staffers, "I know that you and our readers still have a lot of questions about how this drama unfolded." Indeed we do. We also have a lot of questions about just how thorough this "thoroughly reported piece" will actually be.

For instance, is it going to focus only on "the drama" of Judy's time behind bars -- or will it finally shed some light on her still very murky role in Plamegate? Will it include an accounting of Miller's grand jury testimony? More on her relationship with Scooter Libby? Will it delve into Miller's dreadful reporting on WMD in Iraq -- the issue that brought her to the Plame dance in the first place?

And how will this "full account" be fact-checked? Will it be told exclusively from Miller's perspective or will the Times reporters vet her claims by speaking with other sources? For instance, will they run what Miller says by Libby's lawyer -- or will they just ask Lou Dobbs to pant and moan over Miller's "sacrifice"? Will they interview editors and reporters from the Times who observed first-hand Miller's actions during the period in question (and who are speaking privately about her questionable methods)? In other words, will they apply the same journalistic standards to the Judy Miller story they would to any other subject?

One promising sign is that, as Jay Rosen reports, the piece on Miller will be edited by deputy managing editor Jonathan Landman, who, a year before the Jayson Blair scandal broke, had written an e-mail warning: "We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now."

Having the specter of Blair hovering over the Times newsroom wouldn't be such a bad thing as the paper prepares to publish the Miller piece. The message couldn't be any clearer: Don't make the same mistakes again!

You may recall that on May 11, 2003 -- 12 days after the Blair scandal broke -- the Times published its voluminous, 7,000 plus word account of the affair that went into the details of Blair's journalistic fraud but failed to explore the profound editorial and managerial failings that allowed that fraud to occur.

The reaction of CBS MarketWatch was indicative of the uproar that followed: "The New York Times' exhaustive catalogue of the misdeeds of former reporter Jayson Blair has raised far more questions than it has answered... Above all, the 152-year-old newspaper, often called the best in the world at covering big events and providing perspective, didn't explain to its readers how senior management at the paper let the fiasco happen."

Memo to Keller and Landman: If you are going to do it, really do it. Don't half-step or kinda tell the whole story. In the end, the truth will out and the other shoe will eventually drop -- ask Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd. The slow blood-letting that led to their resignations five-weeks after Blair was forced to quit was much worse for the paper -- and much harder for everyone involved -- than putting all the cards on the table right away would have been.

Re-reading the coverage of the Blair fiasco raised another key question in my mind: What is it about those running the Times that keeps them from acting on the damning knowledge they have until so much damage has been done? It happened with Blair and it happened with Miller.

With Blair, the red flags were everywhere: the regular corrections to his stories, the counseling leaves, the questionable unnamed sources, the flashing sirens from Landman and others. And yet his bosses continued to enable his fraudulent behavior.

Miller was also given special treatment -- even after her deeply-flawed reporting on WMD, even after the paper was forced to apologize for four of her WMD stories, even after her highly-irregular behavior while embedded in Iraq, even after she was forced off the WMD beat in hope she would quit, even after a number of her colleagues refused to share a byline with her. Even, even, even...

Apparently, the Times can't course-correct until it has hit the iceberg and is taking on water. It's the paper's tragic institutional flaw.

It will be interesting to see if those captaining the paper pull hard on the wheel on Sunday -- or merely spend a few thousand words rearranging the deck chairs.