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Jay Rosen

Jay Rosen

Posted: October 5, 2005 01:25 AM

News Comes in Code: Judy Miller's Return to the Times


Just one man's opinion, but now is a good time to say it: The New York Times is not any longer--in my mind--the greatest newspaper in the land. Nor is it the base line for the public narrative that it once was. Some time in the least year or so I moved the Washington Post into that position.

The Post, I believe, is our great national newspaper now; the Times is number two, with the Wall Street Journal close behind. Still a strong fleet. With a new ship in the lead perhaps it will sail to unexpected places.

It was a long time in the making, this change in my half-conscious rankings of the great players in news. The Web has a lot to do with it, for the Post has been bolder, more willing to experiment online, less hung up. (Plus it hired this guy, a key move.) TimesSelect has something to do with it, too, for the reasons I explored in an earlier post. The breakdown in controls in reporting Weapons of Mass Destruction is, of course a factor-- along with earlier episodes: Jayson Blair, Wen Ho Lee, Paul Krugman's correction trauma. It's an accumulation of things; the Post is just more agile, better able to adjust to a changing world, and to the exploding marketplace in news and views.

The switch happened a while ago, but I only realized it last night, as I was about to read Katharine Seelye's account of Judith Miller's return to the newsroom of the New York Times. When I clicked on the story about 1:00 am I thought to myself... They're not up to it. And while it may seem strange to some Huffington Post readers, I had never really felt that way before in reading a news story in the New York Times.

On plenty of occasions since I began reading the paper (in college) I would say to myself after finishing a Times article, "nah, I don't trust it." Often I have waved an imaginary hand at what I had just read, as if to say: get out of here with that! There were columnists whose way of arriving at opinions I didn't trust, and periods when I lost trust in the editorial pages entirely. But I held to my assumption as a news reader (and paying subscriber) that the New York Times would always try to tell me what it knew when it covered a story, and it would always try to cover the stories it knew were news.

Fairness, you know, is a two-way medium. If I am not fair in my expectations, I will never find the Times fair as a news provider. As a critic I have found it more effective to hold the Times to the elevated (and self-conscious) public interest standard it set for itself, which does in the end mean buying into "the newspaper of record" mythology, so as to point out where the newspaper and its record fall short.

Clicking on to Seelye's article last night, I realized that I didn't expect the Times to try to tell me what it knew. I expected what I said Sunday: it's Judy Miller's New York Times. She does with it as she pleases. On Sunday the Times had not tried to tell us what it knew, prompting Howard Kurtz of the Post to say: "I was hoping I would wake up this morning and see in my 'New York Times' [a] 5,000-word piece by Judith Miller telling us everything that was involved. She has no more legal liability here. Matt Cooper did it."

And Bill Keller could have ordered "it." But Judy does as she pleases.

I like how Kurtz said he was "hoping." I think there is something very basic to Times journalism about this kind of hope, which I shared with Kurtz that day. "They're the New York Times," we probably thought to ourselves. They're going to tell us what they know-- now that they can tell us. After all, we have been waiting while Miller's ordeal wound down. "No piece in the paper today," said Kurtz on "Reliable Sources." He was surprised, and seemed a little sad too. The day before he had reported in Media Notes on frustration among Miller's colleagues at the Times:

"People are angry," one staffer said. "Was this a charade on her part for martyrdom, or a real principle? She wanted to resurrect herself from the WMD thing," the staffer said, a reference to Miller stories about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction that turned out to be wrong.

Actually, I don't buy it that she wants to "make-up for WMD failures," and rehabilitate herself. The key to understanding Miller is to realize: she doesn't think she failed one bit in her reporting before the Iraq war. (I explain here and here, if you're really interested. Okay, one more.)

So on Sunday, day of reflection, no one in the Times reflecting about Miller, though according to the editorial page scribes history had been made that week. "No newspaper reporter has ever spent so much time in custody to defend the right to protect confidential sources." Sounds Week-in-Reviewish to me.

On Monday, Oct. 3 (normally a big day for media coverage in the Times) more nothing. And in Tuesday's "Miller returns" story very little beyond the official narrative, summarized quite well by the American Prospect's Greg Sargent: "that Miller is a Gandhi-like figure driven solely by principle and unswayed by the worldly discomforts of prison, and that the Times is her steadfast defender." And I don't think its Katharine Seelye's fault; almost any Times-person writing that article would have stuck to the known script. That's the only safe thing to do. You get the message from the photo too: hero's welcome.

So limited and empty and "stiff" is the official story about Judy Miller that some are reminded of the old Soviet style in public communication. News comes in code, and mostly the silences speak. Steve Lovelady of CJR Daily said so:

Our colleague Mike Hoyt has noted, reading the Times about the Times lately is a lot like reading Pravda about the Kremlin 20 years ago: You better bring to the task a microscope, a magic marker and an ability to read not just between the lines but between the words.

For example: The only quotes in Seelye's piece are from Judy Miller, returning home, and Bill Keller, welcoming her back. There's your official narrative at work. The staff does not speak. Incredulous professional peers are silent. There is no debate out there worth bringing into the account. No book deal the Times can find out about, although Miller gets to say she's "unsure" about doing a book about her ordeal.

Pulling back a bit from that story, we're supposed to believe, I guess (no one's told me) that Maureen Dowd (who appears on Wednesdays and Saturdays) doesn't see any column-writing promise in the "grandstanding" charge, or the "one-third of a martini in a gorgeous glass, along with a fruit tray," brought to Miller by Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., or the "meal I want my husband to prepare," or the big battle of wits--and totally conflicting stories--between Lewis Libby's lawyer Joseph Tate and the First Amendment sage Floyd Abrams. No column material there, right?

With many unanswered questions, some of which only the Times can address, being itself a huge actor in the drama, the newspaper has gone into editorial default, as if a plea of nolo contendere had been entered at Supreme News Court in the matter of Judy Miller, prosecutor Fitzgerald and the sputtering New York Times.

Notice that in her first few days out of jail Miller could not manage to: 1.) compose a statement for the Times that reveals anything, 2.) answer a single question from reporters that reveals anything, 3.) say a thing about her grand jury testimony that reveals anything, although it is legal to do so and Matt Cooper of Time magazine did, or 4.) admit that Lewis Libby was her source, even though letters from her lawyer to his lawyer were posted for all to see by the New York Times! (She did admit it Monday, four days after the whole world knew. This is journalism?)

From what I understand of the code that binds reporters, if you have big news because it happens you are a participant in the news, then you phone the desk because you think of your colleagues and they deserve the scoop. Of course you answer questions from the press when it's time for that because you're a source and they can't write their stories without you. You behave with an awareness that you're usually in their position, trying to squeeze information out of harried people, who sometimes just want to go home and have a quiet meal. You remain a journalist, even though you have to operate as a source, and defend your interests.

Judy Miller has behaved like she understood not one word of this.

Miller is a longtime friend of the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. They socialize. It's not a scandal, but it is a fact. Sulzberger has stood behind her in a show of support that anyone watching can see is personal, and strongly-felt. She has the full support of Executive Editor Bill Keller, who has said (more or less) she's a First Amendment hero-- not a martyr, Keller would say, but a hero in the sense of acting with exemplary courage and personal conviction in civil disobedience to the law. (Because she could do no other.)

Colliding ominously with these two facts are several others. The weight of professional opinion--once solidly behind Judy Miller, for a long time split 60/40 for her--is now decisively against. (I would think reader opinion is similarly thumbs down.) Most journalists seem baffled by her explanations, and dubious about the waiver that wasn't, then was. They do not see her cause as necessarily just.

Within the Times, I don't know what the feelings are, but it isn't possible that people there are insulated from the above facts. They know what their peers in the press think. The Washington bureau, in my opinion, has been humiliated by the plea of nolo contendere. And I doubt that I am the only one who sees it that way.

I don't expect the editorial default to last. It's possible that once the news coverage, column-writing and self-examination starts to flow (next week? the week after that?) the Times will recover its journalistic senses, and get back some of the reputation points that are expiring because it's become Judy Miller's Times.

The official story now is wait for the official story, the big piece of explanatory journalism Bill Keller has said will happen. "A full account of Ms. Miller's case," in Seelye's words.

"I know that you and our readers still have a lot of questions about how this drama unfolded," he told the staff members. He said the paper had been wary of revealing too much about the case for fear of compounding Ms. Miller's legal problems, but added, "Now that she's free, we intend to answer those questions to the best of our ability in a thoroughly reported piece in the pages of The New York Times, and soon. We owe it to our readers, and we owe it to you, our staff."

"In an interview after her appearance, Ms. Miller said she would cooperate with the newspaper's reporters," Seelye reports. That would be a switch, huh? "In the interview, she declined to reveal what she had told the grand jury." Oh, no switch. Says Lovelady: "So much for cooperation."

You see at Judy Miller's New York Times, Judy decides when she cooperates. There is a code operating here but I assure you it is not the one shared among most reporters. (As I type this I learn that she will be on CNN with Lou Dobbs tonight. Update: Transcript.)

After watching the short video of Miller speaking in the newsroom, and reading the coverage again, it's clear what her story is for the weeks ahead: Judy Miller won significant victories for all journalists with her decision to go to jail for her principles. Therefore she made the right decision, and so did Sulzberger and Keller by backing her.

The first victory she claims is: "the blanket waiver is dead." Meaning no one in the press will believe it any more and testify when a source gives a blanket waiver to all journalists. Miller showed what a sham it was, forcing Libby to give her a personal waiver, over the phone, and demonstrate that he really, really meant it.

The second victory is that, though she was forced to submit her notes, she and the Times got to redact the notes to remove all references to other cases, other sources, rather than have a third party--neither the prosecutor nor the journalist--do the redacting. That will somehow become a precedent, she suggests.

She is very proud of these victories. "I got things that no other journalist has ever gotten out of a process like this." Her reference point is not what the press may have won or lost from the state, but what Miller got compared to other journalists who tried it. There's your First Amendment hero.

Miller claims that Fitzgerald was not willing to limit her testimony to one source and one story, as he did for others, and Lewis Libby did not give her a personal waiver, as he did for others, so she could not negotiate a way out, as did others. But then the pressure of her public stand forced Fitzgerald to relent and Libby to relent via negotiations. And so, her victories won, she ended her jail stay and testified.

That's Judy's story and she will stick to it.

Whether the Times can free itself, remember its loyalty to readers, and tell that larger story that incorporates and corrects hers is... totally unclear. Frankly, the organization may not be up to it. But this doesn't matter to what I said at the start. There's a new flagship paper, and just as the Times needed the Post to steam alongside and challenge it, the Post will need a strong New York Times to remain true.

So I hope it goes back to being the New York Times one day soon.



Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York University. His weblog is PressThink, where you can often find updates and reactions. See his Oct. 2nd post, Judith Miller and Her Times.