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The Hypothesis: Notes on the Judy Miller Situation

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In my last post, Armchair Critic Speculates, I gave readers my hypothesis, to be tested against events: Judy Miller would not, in any material way, cooperate with the team of Times reporters directed by deputy managing editor Jon Landman. I wrote:

Everything has to wait until the moment when Judy "'can be expected to tell what happened," as Landman so carefully put it. When it comes and she still refuses the hierarchy will turn a whiter shade of pale. Key people will then know their investment in Miller went terribly wrong.

You have met The Hypothesis. If it dies by reason of being untrue I shall be pleased to report it.

And if I knew that vital source Judith Miller, editor Jonathan Landman, reporters Adam Liptak, and Don Van Natta Jr., and writer Janny Scott got themselves a hotel suite (let's say the Michelangelo at 51st and 7th Avenue) to thrash out the truth, and piece together an account that will stand up to the proper scrutiny of their readers and peers, then as a Times reader, a paying subscriber, a preening New Yorker, a journalism academic, a press critic, and public interest blogger, I would feel relieved. Quite so. (Of course I don't know of any huddle like this; there have been no reports.) Like Times-people I am rooting for the Landman team, and for the Times as a truthelling force in the world. I said it in Speculates:

If there is any strong current of hope it has an incredibly simple source: that Times journalism will win out in the end, despite all the coming losses, because in the end Jonathan Landman, Don Van Natta, Adam Liptak and Janny Scott will be able to tell the truth.

If Judith Miller is helping them-- good! I would expect it to go without saying. My last four posts (here... here... here... and here) have been the words of a disappointed Times loyalist.

Now for the evidence that's come in since The Hypothesis. (And why do we have to guess about all this? No one could draft a simple note to readers? What media era are we in?)

First, in the Wall Street Journal's report on Miller's second day of additional testimony, (Oct. 12) the big news was the lifting of the contempt order:

"I am delighted that the contempt order has been lifted, and Judy is now completely free to go about her great reporting as a very principled and honorable reporter," said Robert Bennett, Ms. Miller's attorney.

The lifting of the order is significant, because it opens the door for Ms. Miller to disclose details of her story and her testimony to the Times, which has been criticized for not being more forthcoming on what it knows about its reporter's involvement in the case. Bill Keller, executive editor of the Times, said on Tuesday that once Ms. Miller's "obligations to the grand jury are fulfilled, we intend to write the most thorough story we can...."

And will Judy cooperate? The Hypothesis wants to know...

Reached Wednesday afternoon, Ms. Miller declined to say whether she would be giving an interview to the Times.

(Italics mine.) The court had just said: Judith Miller, you are free to go. Her attorney had just said she's in the clear to be a journalist again. But when asked if she would grant an interview to her own newspaper, the New York Times, Judy Miller declines to say whether she will or won't. Sorry, that counts as evidence for The Hypothesis.

Okay, more. From Salon's Farhad Manjoo (Oct. 14):

Bill Keller, the paper's executive editor, told Times reporter David Johnston that the judge's ruling "should clear the way for The Times to do what we've been yearning to do: tell the story." Asked by Salon to clarify this statement -- did Keller mean that Miller would talk to Times reporters who are charged to investigate her role in the Plame case? -- Keller was cagey: "If you're patient, you'll read your answer in our paper," he wrote in an e-mail. (Miller's attorneys did not return calls for comment.)

Reverse it: If Miller were cooperating, would Keller say anything like that? "Be patient, and your answer will be in the paper." No, he would not. He's saying there's some "story" there. The caginess counts for The Hypothesis.

We move on to the subtler areas like what's left out? The Times article by David Johnston announced that the contempt finding has been lifted. Big news involving Judith Miller, right? But it mentions nothing about Miller agreeing to cooperate. The subject is avoided.

Of equal interest to The Hypothesis: Miller, the protagonist, is talked about throughout the story, but she isn't in the story at all. No innocent quotes. No telling quotes. Hmmm. David Johnston didn't have her cell phone number? No. She didn't want to comment, or they didn't want to ask her.

Why? We don't know why. (Here's some fact-filled speculation.) But this too counts as evidence for.

By nature The Hypothesis is at risk for reading too much into things, or as a student of mine once said, "chewing more than we've bit off." Nonetheless, it was struck by the precise way Jonathan Landman worded something in an Observer article a few days ago. He was explaining why the report was delayed, and clarifying what Bill Keller had said in a memo to staff.

“What Bill is talking about is not when we can write a story,” Mr. Landman said. “What he is talking about is when [Ms. Miller] can be expected to tell what happened.”

The Times story is ready to go, he's (almost) saying. It's just waiting for the point where Judy Miller "can be expected to tell what happened." Note how the "expected" point is reached whether or not Miller talks to the Times. That is why he worded it that way, says The Hypothesis. It's legalistic, and also precise. These are clues.

The Hypothesis senses you'd like more evidence. Well, I was interviewed in David Folkenflik's report for NPR's "Morning Edition," Oct. 13. (So was Arianna. You can listen here. He asked me to read the opening lines of my post where I said the Washington Post is the flagship now.) Folkenflik reveals that Miller had agreed to an interview with him. Then a corporate spokesperson called and said sorry, no go.

The Hypothesis smiled when it heard that. It could have predicted the call. Judy Miller wants to avoid tough, wide open questioning from peers, even though another part of her wants to speak out for a national shield law, and to the issue of protecting sources. (Several people have suggested to me that she will put herself in the situation--show up to these forums--then try to set rules on what can and cannot be discussed. Hypothesis Lite. Risky, but plausible.)

Given that, the Hypothesis was, well, surprised to learn that on Tuesday the Society of Professional Journalists is planning to give Judy Miller a First Amendment award--no lie--at its Las Vegas convention, and she's going to speak, and there will be a panel discussion. From a SPJ mailing list:

New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who was jailed for four months for refusing to reveal a confidential source, will speak at SPJ's national conference [in Las Vegas] at 8:15- 9 a.m., Oct. 18. Following the speech, Miller will receive a First Amendment Award and join a panel discussion titled "The Reporter's Privilege Under Siege." Joining her on the panel will be Associated Press reporter Josef Hebert, Patricia Hurtado of Newsday and Bruce Sanford of Baker and Hostetler. Don't miss it.

Steve Lovelady and Paul McLeary didn't. Their angry and well-reasoned piece in CJR Daily is mostly about the Times ("its silence on the matter has moved into the realm of the absurd") but adds this:

In a late twist that left reporters and editors across the country raising their eyebrows, the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) revealed that it doesn't share the discontent of many in the industry over the confounding way the Miller case has unfolded. In fact, it is bringing Miller in to speak at its national conference next week. After she speaks, it plans on presenting her with its "First Amendment Award" convening a panel discussion titled "The Reporter's Privilege Under Siege."

Forgive us if we're not exactly holding our breath for Miller's speech, but the only thing we see under siege here is the reputation of the Times -- and that of SPJ as well.

Read them. Frankly, I'll be surprised if this engagement were kept. It's strange to me that SPJ would plan it without knowing what will be revealed in the Times report. Normal prudence would seem to say: wait and see. Especially since in August the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) had to reverse a committee decision to give Miller a Conscience in Media award. And this was before the questions surrounding her release, the late discovery of notes, the refusal to answer reporters' questions, the celebrity-style TV appearances. If AJSA thought better of it, what was SPJ thinking?

Anyway, for The Hypothesis it will count against if she shows, and for if she cancels. But there's an earlier test, according to Dan Gillmor:

Miller will be speaking this weekend -- or so I've been told -- at the California First Amendment Coalition's annual Open Government Assembly in Fullerton, California. I'm heading down there tomorrow (doing a keynote and a panel), and will be fascinated to see what California journalists' reaction is to her.

No kidding. The Hypothesis will be watching. (Title for the conference: "Unlocking government for the public and the press & the blogs." Some people think that's what the Miller case is all about.)

I know you are not, but let's say you were Judith Miller, and Jonathan Landman's team was readying for publication the most important article in your career, on which your entire reputation for the moment rests; and if you were cooperating with that team, because you were vitally concerned that the story come out fair and right, would you be winging it to California for the weekend? Or would you want to be in that hotel room where they're supposed to be bulletproofing the story?

By the way, I asked a Times Person (TP) this week, "what would happen if she just refused?" TP said she would be fired for sure.

Finally, The Hypothesis was struck by something public editor Barney Calame said when he finally spoke up about the missing journalism. I applaud him for it; there was an edge in his voice too.

"As public editor, I have been asking some basic questions of the key players at The Times since July 12," he wrote. "But they declined to fully respond to my fundamental questions because, they said, of the legal entanglements of Ms. Miller and the paper."

It's that phrase: and the paper... He may be saying that the New York Times Company had a possible legal entanglement, which might have been affected by publishing virtually anything about Miller, including a column from Calame about the situation preventing publication. This would explain a lot. But isn't that like self-inflicted prior restraint?

Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York University. His weblog is PressThink.

Previous posts on Judith Miller, the Fitzgerald prosecution and the New York Times:

* Judith Miller and Her Times (Oct. 2): "Notice how it affects what the New York Times, a great institution, can tell the public, and yet Judy's decision was hers: personal when she made it (her conditions weren't met), personal when she changed it (her conditions were met.) That's what I mean by Miller's Times."

* News Comes in Code: Judy Miller's Return to the Times (Oct. 4): "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 last year or so I moved the Washington Post into that position..."

* The Shimmer: Missing Data at the New York Times (Oct. 10) "Whereas a week ago, I was calling it 'Judy Miller's New York Times' to emphasize how she seemed to be the actor-in-chief, I now think it's more than that: a bigger unknown is affecting things. Not only is the Times not operating properly, it's unable to say to readers: here's why we're not."

* The Times at Bay: Armchair Critic Speculates (Oct. 12) "Everything has to wait until the moment when Judy 'can be expected to tell what happened,' as Landman so carefully put it. When it comes and she still refuses the hierarchy will turn a whiter shade of pale. Key people will then know their investment in Miller went terribly wrong."