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The Satrapy at West 43rd: One Armchair Critic's Disillusionment On The Eve of Full Disclosure

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As one who has written for over two years about the WMD reporting of Judy Miller at The New York Times, and her related involvement in the case of Valerie Plame, writer's block has settled in as the adjectives have run out. After all, how could the spectacle have been worse in terms of journalistic standards, unless one compares it to the role of William Randolph Hearst in the Spanish-American War? What more is there to say about an open scandal (and deep wound) at the newspaper of record?

The Times has been my daily companion for half a century, as I studied, taught, and practiced politics and foreign policy. Anyone who knows me would testify that I have been a proselytizer for the Gray Lady out in the country where I grew up, as a college prof requiring my students to read it, and as a government official who relied upon it for "first draft" reporting on the events of our time. I often leaked scoops to its reporters, from Washington to Moscow to Johannesburg. I read and drew inspiration from Harrison Salisbury's "Without Fear or Favor;" Gay Talese's "The Kingdom and the Power;" David Halberstam's "The Powers That Be;" and Max Frankel's "The Times of My Life and My Life with The Times."

But, alas, this premier news outlet for America and the world appears to be going up in the flames of cronyism with a corresponding failure of leadership. I make no apologies for my strong indictment on the eve of the full story that Bill Keller has promised--no matter what his able reporters and editors may weigh in with after two-plus years.

As a philosopher correspondent framed it in Jay Rosen's PressThink, the "implicit deal" that The Times offered under executive editor Howell Raines and later under Bill Keller—both reporting to publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr.—was essentially this: They would cozy up to the power-brokers so that they could keep us informed about wheeling and dealing. Once the paper consciously took on this role, the deal came into question—for they had become active players as contrasted with a Fourth Estate check and balance on executive power in a national security state. "What are journalists for?"-- the title of a Rosen book.

Having not rushed to serve the public's right to know in the Plame controversy, fundamental questions are raised about the value of The New York Times that go beyond any cases of gross misreporting, or something approximating a way-behind-the-curve full report.

The War and the Brouhaha over Plame

As it becomes clearer that Judith Miller went to jail to advance her own career and to protect her sources, the record will show that this representative of The Times was far too "embedded" with the Bush Admininstration. Moreover, it is not possible to separate the extent to which Miller's WMD reporting played a part in pushing the "neo-con" agenda in Iraq from the way in which her actions in the Plame affair have been protecting her neo-con sources. The Plame scandal is not a separate issue from her WMD reporting, but occurred as part of her WMD activism. Just whom has Miller been protecting?

To be more explicit, Miller's relationships with Cheney's chief-of-staff Scooter Libby, his subordinates John Hannah and Bill Luti, John Bolton at State, and Doug Feith at Defense (not to mention INC leader Ahmed Chalabi), and her unusual power in the newsroom--together these factors materially contributed to taking The Times out of the business of holding those in power accountable and turned it into a propaganda organ.

Her WMD reporting (and other war-related reporting by Michael Gordon and Pat Tyler) in 2002-2003 overwhelmingly supported the White House's buildup to and initial execution of the war on Iraq. In short, Miller was the "stovepipe" (a Sy Hersh phrase for unvetted intelligence) for disinformation from the Administration and Ahmed Chalabi about Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction on to the front page of the Times in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, and just afterwards. Over a year later (May 2004) The Times published an editor's note, saying that some of its coverage was "not as rigorous as it should have been." No mention of Miller was permitted by editor Keller.

Her conduct, not for the first time, had greatly distressed several of her colleagues. Some of them (John Burns, Jane Perlez) saw through her and Chalabi; others (Doug Jehl and James Risen) knew or suspected that much of what she was reporting on WMD in 2002-2003 was dubious or bogus.
(The Washington Post and Knight-Ridder and the Associated Press had more evidence on this score.) It seemed as if the friendship Miller had built up with "Pinch" Sulzberger, and editor Howell Raines' weakness to want to "flood the zone," combined to give her and her sources immunity from scrutiny.

Miller's near-stenographic coverage of WMD alarms in cahoots with the Administration in the fall and winter of 2002-2003, and her "embedded" role in the Iraqi desert when helping to steer a WMD search task force in the direction Chalabi was pointing them--all the time claiming to hold a SECRET Pentagon clearance--added up to heady power. Later on, after returning from Iraq in May 2003, she did her best to finesse it all in a July 20 "mini-culpa" that effectively brought to an end her beat.

Of course, when ambassador Joseph Wilson disclosed in a New York Times op-ed on July 6, 2003, that he went on a CIA mission before the war and debunked the tale that Saddam had sought enriched uranium for nuclear weapons, he did more than undermine President Bush's State of the Union claim. His account was a blow to the credibility of Miller's stories, especially those that focused on the nuclear "mushroom cloud" threat.

Sticky Wickets

Jay Rosen wrote this week: "At this point Judith Miller is a deeply unpopular figure in the NYT newsroom*** They wonder how the Times got itself into a situation where Judy and her attorneys seem to be calling the shots for the newspaper at large.*** The DC bureau feels isolated; it has been ignored and de-fanged by the confounding logic of this case. Anything new it might [have dug] up could complicate Judy Miller's trials, or undermine the positions (and prior statements) of the people in charge of the newspaper. What the reporters in the DC bureau [have not been free] to do is report on the Judy Miller story without fear or favor.

"But what recourse do they have . . . complain to the publisher?," asked Rosen. Sulzberger "bet the First Amendment house on Judy Miller...Officially, everything has to wait until the moment when Judy 'can be expected to tell what happened,' as Deputy Managing Editor Jonathan Landman so carefully put it. When it comes and [if] she still refuses the hierarchy will turn a whiter shade of pale. Key people will then know their investment in Miller went terribly wrong.

"That is when telling the truth to readers will be the only option. . .Thus the team of Landman, Don Van Natta, Adam Liptak and Janny Scott [may] have to tell Miller's story without Miller's help -- and in a sense 'against' her. *** Especially as her story [has] crumbled, Miller has [had] no interest in helping the Times reporters investigate her..."

It is little wonder that the masthead does not want to dig aggressively, especially in the wake of Jayson Blair (a recurring excuse with Keller), into the paper's role in enabling a war of choice that many foreign policy experts--right and left--are now calling the greatest post-WW II strategic debacle. Her chum of a publisher, her legally and bureaucratically entangled executive editor--and with a "housecat" for public editor--all have been confined to supporting roles.

(By the way, does anyone doubt for a moment that the prospect of a Judith Miller "memoir" has not given pause to Sulzberger and Keller? What kind of book will it be? Be assured that they want to influence the answer to that question.)

It is readily apparent that the coverage of the Plame affair has been tainted by The Times' close association with the White House. Ms. Miller spent almost three months in prison for contempt of court, protecting the anonymity of a source already revealed (Scooter Libby), for a story she never wrote, that connected Wilson's mission with the role of his wife, Plame, as a CIA operative.

The leadership on West 43rd St. had decided a year ago--at her insistence--that Miller's fight was an absolutist principled defense of freedom of the press. Her resolute martyrdom, with the full support of Sulzberger and Keller, may have undermined the customary privilege of reporters in not revealing sources that had existed in deference to the status of the press. The Washington Post's lawyers had counseled negotiated cooperation, as in the case of Walter Pincus, but The Times decided—with her making the choices all the way--to force an issue it was destined to lose. In the process, the newspaper subordinated (to a humiliating degree) its news coverage to her legal defense, withholding reporting on what she told the grand jury. And it also refused to answer the questions of their own reporter, Douglas Jehl of the Washington bureau, that would have shed some light on her claim in court that she really had been working on a story about Plame in early summer of 2003.

The Bottom Line

Judith Miller continued to carry WMD water for the Administration a long time after she left the field of battle and gave up her choice beat, making speeches all across the country in 2003-2004 as a "warhawk." (A characterization she shares with former columnist and executive editor Bill Keller.) In the case of the revelation of the covert identity of Valerie Plame, she and possibly a collaborating editor chose NOT—after all—to write about the White House campaign to discredit Plame's spouse, even though Miller obviously knew about it.

We have observed the selling of the birthright of The New York Times that has made a mockery of Ochs' legendary "without fear or favor" commitment. For this citizen, it is a sad, and repulsive, sight. All for a mess of porridge consisting of non-existent WMDs, and outright collusion between a once-star reporter and some of the highest officials of the land.