After Miller Let There Be Light

05/25/2011 11:45 am ET
  • Jay Rosen I teach journalism at NYU, write the blog, try to grok new media.

I don't know Judith Miller, nor do I feel like I know her. I have no glimpses into what makes her tick-- and explode. People who have known her tell me stories. I listen deeply, but there's a point past which my understanding does not get taken, even when my informants have great stories and I believe them.

I do not consider her a neo-con because that would lend far too much coherence to her thought. About the only thing I know about her is she's incoherent. What she thinks does not match up with what she does, what she does is not revealed in what she says. I guess you could say she's a mystery-- but a political mystery, walking around like a person, impersonating a journalist.

Today in the Wall Street Journal Richard Curtis, a literary agent, was asked to speculate on what her book will be worth. "There was stuff she knew, secrets she kept, games she played, intrigues surrounding what she knows," says Curtis. "As the Libby case becomes protracted, what she has to say will be very valuable."

There is something about the Miller method in what he says. Create confusion, then rescue it with your account. Someone will pay big money for that book, key parts of which will be impossible to fact check or verify, just like her stories to Patrick Fitzgerald. I have my own book to write (and Miller may be a few pages in it) so these reflections will be brief.

During her 40 days of crisis I called her the unreliable narrator. This was because everything she said increased our uncertainty about the story, adding to the confusion of the case. Like: Wasn't Libby, someone else, can't remember who. Like talking about her security clearances, and then "explaining" that she didn't mean clearances at all. Or "explaining" that she went to jail to dramatize the need for a federal shield law, but leaving out that her case would not have been covered by the law's protections.

We hear a lot these days about transparency coming to journalism; and it's a true fact. There's a lot more scrutiny and openness, and it's not going to stop. The ones who don't get it will keep talking about "the sausage factory." (Ugly, but we love to eat the stuff. What an irony! Ha, ha, ha...) The ones who do understand transparency (the new rules of trust) will find practices that can not only stand the light of day, but look stronger in it.

But even before pressures for greater transparency came to journalism, a kind of spiritual belief in it was there, in the sense that making the world clearer for people is utterly basic to the job. "Let there be light." I think this is where Miller can be understood as an exceptional case, and maybe in the end it is personal psychology, her own mishigas, that explains how she got there.

Judith Miller may be the only investigative reporter alive who doesn't care if you understand, because she does. She's not aware of it when her stories do not add up. They cohere for her. In this sense she violates not the rules of journalism, but the reason we have it. Her starting point is not "let there be light," but, "Look, there is darkness, danger, and confusion. Send me in there..."

Well, the New York Times just did.

Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York University. His weblog is PressThink. You can find an archive of his writing on the Miller case here.