The Shimmer: Missing Data at the New York Times

10/11/2005 07:40 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When I talk about pictures in my mind I am talking, quite specifically, about images that shimmer around the edges. There used to be an illustration in every elementary psychology book showing a cat drawn by a patient in varying stages of schizophrenia. This cat had a shimmer around it. You could see the molecular structure breaking down at the very edges of the cat: the cat became the background and the background the cat, everything interacting, exchanging ions.... certain images shimmer for me. Look hard enough, and you can’t miss the shimmer. It’s there.
-- Joan Didion

"The news comes in code, and mostly the silences speak." Last week, that's how I described what happens when the New York Times reports about Judith Miller and her time in jail. This is still the case, and people in journalism are noticing how weird it is. "I find the Times' conduct at this point inexplicable," said Michael Isikoff of Newsweek magazine on CNN's Reliable Sources. (I was on the show with him; so was Glenn Reynolds. The transcript.)

The host, Howard Kurtz, pointed out that when Isikoff's poorly sourced story on the desecration of the Koran ran in Newsweek, (see PressThink on it) the editors "did an investigation and set the record straight." Has the New York Times "come close to doing that here?" he asked.

No, it hasn't. And no one knows why. The official story seems to be: "Wait for the official story." Until then, normal operations are suspended. We're told that Miller is talking to the paper's reporters, and a major article is on the way. We're also told it's been delayed. There is no date for it. The editors will barely talk about it. Meanwhile the story keeps heating up. As ABC's The Note observed today (Oct. 10):

If you aren't spending 90% of your waking time thinking about this, talking about this, and doodling on your jeans about this, then you aren't a member of the Gang of 500, and you probably never will be.

The gang, of course, is the Washington press.

It was on Oct. 2, the Sunday after Judith Miller's release from prison, that the lines went dead. Just when you thought its reporting might intensify--with Miller free, her testimony apparently completed-- Times journalism fell away to almost nothing. Observing the absence of any coverage (or even horn-tooting commemoration) in the big Sunday paper, Arianna Huffington wrote, "Has the New York Times ceased journalistic operations?" A good question then, it's become more apt since.

As I said on Reliable Sources, the paper "has lost the capacity to tell the truth about itself in this story." (I also said it may yet recover.) What we don't know is why the Times has gone into editorial default. Nor do we know when normal operations will be restored. The explanations given don't make much sense. From what I have been able to learn, concerned journalists at the paper, former Times staffers, and peers in national journalism are as baffled, as alarmed as the bloggers and critics. And of course no Times person even thinks of going on-the-record with any doubts-- a statement in itself.

But 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. There are missing data we don't even sense yet. I wish I could say what "it" is, but I can't because I don't know enough.

What I know is in fragments.

Among them is the biggest new fact: The Times reported Oct. 7 that Judy Miller may have to talk to prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald again. Not good for transparency.

Bill Keller, the executive editor of The Times, said Ms. Miller had been cautioned by her lawyers not to discuss the substance of her grand jury testimony until Mr. Fitzgerald finished questioning her.

"We have launched a vigorous reporting effort that I hope will answer outstanding questions about Judy's part in this drama," Mr. Keller said. "This development may slow things down a little, but we owe our readers as full a story as we can tell, as soon as we can tell it."

What combination of things prevents the New York Times from telling us more right now? Again we don't know, and the Times isn't telling. The only explanation we have is: "...the paper had been wary of revealing too much about the case for fear of compounding Ms. Miller’s legal problems." It feels constrained because the Fitzgerald investigation goes on. Which works for why Miller is not divulging her testimony.

* But would it explain why the columnists have been silent on the case since her release?

* Would it tell us why the Times hasn't covered the reaction and controversy in journalism circles over the terms of Miller's release?

* Does it make you curious that Keller has written no editor's note about the glaring inability of the paper to tell us what it knows, or even do normal journalism?

* Do you understand why none of the bosses in this photograph has gone on television to explain how the paper is handling the Miller case and what it sees as the lesson, the stakes? They know Charlie Rose's table is waiting.

* Now even if we could explain Keller's reticence with "not making more trouble for Miller" (doesn't make sense to me, but...); and even if we did understand why the columnists and media reporters and legal correspondents have fallen silent (doesn't make sense to me, but...) we would still have to explain why the public editor, Byron Calame, whose whole job is to represent readers, sees no reason even to mention the matter in this Sunday's column or at his web journal, which were invented for this very reason.

"I continue to watch developments in the Plame investigation with special interest," Calame said in an e-mail to Salon. "If and when I have something to say, I will say it to the readers of the Times." That makes no sense to me.

Even the fail safe mechanisms seem to have broken down. All the lessons in transparency that were learned after Jayson Blair have vanished from the building. Not only is the Times not operating properly, it's unable to say to readers: here's why we're not operating properly. Meanwhile, Keller at a speech in Phoenix is dodging Miller questions, but dissing bloggers, the Wall Street Journal, Bill O'Reilly and the "journalism of assertion." (And Arianna lets him have it.)

"They’re acting like the target of a scandal, " said Glenn Reynolds in our Reliable Sources segment. "They’re not acting like the journalists who investigate a scandal." True. The job of the editors is "to tell us what they know in the first instance, and they just haven't been doing that."

Like on Friday October 7, the day the Times told us Judy Miller was going back to talk with Fitzgerald again. It was the New York Observer that told us why. The Observer reported at its website that "lawyers for Miller have turned over an additional, previously unreported batch of notes on the New York Times reporter's conversations with I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby."

These would be notes from a conversation she had about Joseph Wilson from before Wilson's July 6, 2003 op-ed appeared. Why was she talking to Libby about Wilson before Wilson spoke out publicly in the Times? Perhaps because, as I noted in my July 16 post, Rollback, Wilson began his crusade by trying to leak his criticisms of the Bush White House-- to Nick Kristof of the Times, among others. When that didn’t work he went public in an op-ed piece for the New York Times. Maybe Miller found out about Wilson from Kristof, or from the editorial pages as they negotiated for his article. Or maybe that's crazy and would never happen.

The point is this is another area where the Times has left things opaque. It did report on the missing notes the next day, Oct. 8, and there too something strange happened. Follow this with me:

Let's say the Times told readers about Miller returning to the grand jury so as to indicate why it could not yet reveal all in that "vigorous reporting effort" Keller has promised. And let's say the Times withheld from readers the reason why she had to return (the discovery of the missing notes) so as not to run afoul of the prosecutor, who doesn't want his possible targets learning what he's learning. This make tactical sense, even though it puts the immediate interests of Judy Miller ahead of the immediate interests of Times readers-- a problem throughout the case.

The New York Observer does not have such worries. It finds out about the notes and reveals their existence. The Times has to keeps its readers somewhat up to date, so the next day it reports on the notes in "me too" fashion. Under the principle of don't anger the prosecutor by divulging future testimony it would report only what the Observer did, and no more. Is this what we find? No.

"The notes," said the Observer, "could significantly change the time frame of Miller's involvement with Libby." But the Observer's account was vague about when they were written ("possibly in May 2003" it said.) For the possible targets of the investigation, the "when" is critical. But the Times does not show that kind of reticence. Instead, reporter David Johnston spills a few beans:

The meeting is expected to focus on newly discovered notes compiled by Ms. Miller that refer to a conversation she had with Mr. Libby on June 25, 2003, according to a lawyer in the case who did not want to be named because Mr. Fitzgerald has cautioned against discussing the case. Until now, the only conversations known to have occurred between Ms. Miller and Mr. Libby were on July 8 and 12, 2003.

Is fixing the date consistent with playing it safe for Judy, and not wanting to piss off the prosecutor? Clearly not. It's consistent with basic Times journalism, but then leaving the discovered notes out the Oct. 7 account isn't basic journalism, so what gives? We don't know. The Observer hints at the storm brewing:

The presence of the undisclosed set of notes comes as the Times is seeking to quell internal and external criticism over a lack of transparency in the Miller case. In today's Times, executive editor Bill Keller said Miller’s potential return trip to meet with Fitzgerald could further delay the Times' plans to publish an account of the Miller saga.

At this rate it's hard to see that big article Keller promised appearing before Oct. 28, when Fitzgerald is expected to wrap up his investigation. (UPDATE: Keller's memo to staff, Oct. 11.) One of the trickier parts of the "vigorous reporting effort" is that Keller is a major participant in the story he has ordered, and (apparently) placed all his chips upon.

Which is why Steve Lovelady of CJR Daily said Keller should recuse himself from the editing of it. We don't know if he has; we know that Jonathan (“We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times") Landman was assigned to oversee the reporting of the big explanatory article. I was told so by Times people, and so was the Observer:

Deputy managing editor Jonathan Landman, who has been tapped to edit the report, declined to discuss the state of the paper's Miller reporting. "I’m not going to talk about it," he said.

That's typical. As is the way the Times has become unreliable in reporting on itself. Said Editor & Publisher on Oct. 8: "N.Y. Times' Scooped Again, This Time on Miller's Notes." And where were Miller's notes hiding? The New York Times knows, but it's Michael Isikoff of Newsweek who tells on Oct. 9:

A notebook was discovered in the paper's Washington bureau, reflecting a late June 2003 conversation with Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis (Scooter) Libby, about Wilson and his trip to Africa, says one of the lawyers.

That's the Washington bureau, where (from what I've heard) they're none too thrilled with Judy Miller and getting beaten on their own news. We need to know a lot more about this "discovery." (See David Corn and the indefatigable Tom Maguire on it.) Sounds to me like it came from the Landman team, which is digging into what Miller was doing in June and July of 2003.

Greg Mitchell's column, "The Case of the Missing Notebook," asks many good questions; and he picks up on a point I made in News Comes in Code (See also Jane Hamsher.)

Why have the Times' seven hard-hitting weekday opinion columnists remained virtually silent, pro or con, on their colleague Judith Miller throughout this ordeal? Conflicted? Afraid to appear disloyal? Or discouraged from commenting?

We have no answer to that. Times columnist Frank Rich--who writes about Washington scandals and earlier wrote about this one, as Stephen Spruiell reminds us--was also on "Reliable Sources" Sunday. Kurtz could have asked him: "Frank, why haven't you written a column on Miller's release and the questions left hanging?" But he didn't. For certain Kurtz asked Bill Keller to appear on Sunday's program, or to send another top editor. No dice. Again, it's unclear why, since this would only help the Times.

I said in the "After" section of my last post that to begin to unravel the mystery of what's going on here this Douglas Jehl story from July 27 is the starting point. It has a bland title: "Case of C.I.A. Officer's Leaked Identity Takes New Turn." The article compared the accounts of several reporters who had been entangled in the leak investigation. It said that a third source must exist, beyond Lewis Libby and Karl Rove. And it began an inquiry into a major unknown: what story was Judy Miller working on that would later bring her into Fitzgerald's sights? We get a little information about it:

During that period, Ms. Miller was working primarily from the Washington bureau of The Times, reporting to Jill Abramson, who was the Washington bureau chief at the time, and was assigned to report for an article published July 20, 2003, about Iraq and the hunt for unconventional weapons, according to Ms. Abramson, who is now managing editor of The Times.

And then the door is shut, in a manner I have not seen before in a Times article. This to me is one of those "pictures that shimmer," in Joan Didion's phrase. Douglas Jehl of the Washington bureau presses the executive editor of the Times (his boss) for answers:

In e-mail messages this week, Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times, and George Freeman, an assistant general counsel of the newspaper, declined to address written questions about whether Ms. Miller was assigned to report about Mr. Wilson's trip, whether she tried to write a story about it, or whether she ever told editors or colleagues at the newspaper that she had obtained information about the role played by Ms. Wilson.

If we knew more about that moment it might take us to the bigger unknowns. Maybe Keller and Freeman's refusals can be explained by the ongoing investigation, but then how would we account for Jehl's discomforting questions? Why was Keller's Washington bureau asking Keller questions that Keller refused to answer, and why did Keller's Times run a story with a stonewalling Bill Keller featured in it? We have just the shimmer, the point where the cat becomes the background and the background the cat.

The investigation Jehl was undertaking apparently got stopped in July; now it has to re-start itself. One assumes this is what Landman and his reporters are doing. One hopes they understand how much of the newspaper's reputation is in their hands. Political philosopher Peter Levine explains why in his commentary on my last post:

The implicit deal that the Times offers is this: We will cozy up to the power-brokers, but we will do it in your interests, so that we can keep you informed about their wheeling and dealing. When the Times becomes a power-broker itself, the deal comes into question. At that moment, the editors should understand that their whole justification is at stake, and they should rush to serve the public’s “right to know.” Failure to do so raises fundamental questions about the value of the New York Times that go far beyond any cases of misreporting or run-of-the-mill bias.

Exactly right. People beyond the Times are starting to worry. I was watching in the green room when Gloria Borger of US News, sitting in Washington, "turned" to New York where Frank Rich was in the CNN studio: "I want to say to Frank," she began. And a rare intensity came into her eyes. "We journalists who have been covering this story, we are all awaiting Judy Miller's piece in The New York Times. We would like to read it, too."

She pronounced the words slowly and gave him a look I would call imploring.

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

Bonus Link: Keller: Everything's Under Control. His Oct. 11 Memo to Times staff...

As we've told readers, once her obligations to the grand jury are fulfilled, we intend to write the most thorough story we can of her entanglement with the White House leak investigation. It's a complicated story involving a large cast, and it has required a meticulous reporting effort -- in part to chase down and debunk some of the myths kicked up by the rumor mill.

Judy has talked to our reporters already about her legal battle, but the story is incomplete until we know as much as we can about the substance of her evidence, and she is under legal advice not to discuss that until her testimony is completed. This may be frustrating to our armchair critics, and it is frustrating to all of us, but it is not unusual even for this investigation.

Earlier at Jay Rosen's PressThink (writings on special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald and the grand jury investigation into the leak of the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame.)

Time for Robert Novak to Feel Some Chill (July 7): "As the judge said Judy Miller can escape her jail cell by finally choosing to talk, so could Novak restore his column and TV appearances by finally talking about his part in the story. Novak is said to have lots of friends in the press. Friends would let him know the time is here."

Rollback (July 16): "This White House doesn't settle for managing the news--what used to be called 'feeding the beast'--because there is a larger aim: to roll back the press as a player within the executive branch, to make it less important in running the White House and governing the country."

Why Robert Novak Stormed Off the Set. (Aug. 5): "Old Novak rules: sorry fellas, can't talk. New rules: Novak chooses. This, I believe, is the cause of what happened on air. The legitimacy of Novak's exemption from questioning had collapsed earlier in the week. Ed Henry was ready with that news. Novak was not ready to receive it."

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..."