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What Price Judith Miller to The New York Times?

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A review of summer editorials by The New York Times on what has become the Plame/Rove/Libby/Miller case is enough to make one wonder about the schizoid character of the editorial board. On occasion, The Times’ editorial voice seems to be the medium for a rear-guard stance by deputy editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal, an assistant managing editor overseeing foreign reporting in 2003, who was Miller’s strongest public defender against widespread criticism of her flawed reporting on Iraq and WMD.

If it can be said of The Times’ editorial board that it seemed to be reading more Washington Post reporters leading up to and during the invasion of Iraq--whereas The Post’s editorial board seemed to be reading more NYT reporters--it now appears that Times editorial writers are reading neither Post reporters (Walter Pincus) nor their own reporters in coverage of the case of Valerie Plame and the role of Times reporter Judith Miller.

Following her early summer decision to go directly to jail, rather than testify before a grand jury, The Times got carried away--to put it mildly--in "Judith Miller Goes to Jail" on July 7:

"This is a proud but awful moment for The New York Times and its employees. Ms. Miller has taken a path that will be lonely and painful... We wish she did not have to choose it, but we are certain she did the right thing.

She is surrendering her liberty in defense of a greater liberty, granted to a free press by the founding fathers so journalists can work on behalf of the public without fear of regulation or retaliation from any branch of government. [...]

By accepting her sentence, Ms. Miller bowed to the authority of the court. But she acted in the great tradition of civil disobedience that began with this nation's founding, which holds that the common good is best served in some instances by private citizens who are willing to defy a legal, but unjust or unwise, order.

This tradition stretches from the Boston Tea Party to the Underground Railroad, to the Americans who defied the McCarthy inquisitions and to the civil rights movement. It has called forth ordinary citizens, like Rosa Parks; government officials, like Daniel Ellsberg and Mark Felt; and statesmen, like Martin Luther King. Frequently, it falls to news organizations to uphold this tradition." [...]

[But] "to be frank, this is far from an ideal case. We would not have wanted our reporter to give up her liberty over a situation whose details are so complicated and muddy. But history is very seldom kind enough to provide the ideal venue for a principled stand. Ms. Miller is going to jail over an article that she never wrote, yet she has been unwavering in her determination to protect the people with whom she had spoken on the promise of confidentiality."

By July 19, in "A Jar of Red Herrings,” there was the suggestion of a welcome retreat from the paper’s full-throated defense of Miller’s role in the Plame case. (Interestingly, the concluding line of the editorial read: "Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction.") To be sure, she was praised for a willingness to accept the legal consequences of her "principled" stand. Then the "buts" followed that served to cast doubt on the position of someone who had never written an article on the matter, yet claimed to have done reporting--for which The Times has produced no notes, or names of sources, or witnesses to her labors.

1. But "the case itself is complicated." Not all government sources are whistleblowers; sometimes they are government officials spreading information with a particular agenda.

2. But "the hard truth is that no reporter can choose the circumstances for upholding a principle." It is up to both "the reporter and editor" to determine whether information given under a promise of confidentiality is reliable.

3. But reporters "cannot apply ideology when protecting their sources."

Other "buts" could have been added: Miller says she has not received any specific waiver from her sources. But who is holding out?

Speaking of Red Herrings

Ah, but the pendulum swung back in “41 Days in Jail and Counting” (August 15) which demanded that The Times reporter be let out of jail. Start with the lead sentence: “Judith Miller has spent more time behind bars to protect privileged information than any other New York Times journalist.” “Privileged” information that might lead to criminal charges being brought against government officials for a crime to which the reporter was a witness? “Privileged” when the evidence might prove a collaborative obstruction of justice by the source and the reporter? “Privileged” when a high White House official--be it Karl Rove or Scooter Libby or some other official--might have committed perjury in lying to the special prosecutor or the grand jury?

No, The Times editorial writers mean “privileged” based on the supposition that Miller was a reporter actively gathering material for a story about Valerie Plame and spouse Joe Wilson, as distinguished from a gossiper-about-town spreading the word on the targets of a White House act of revenge for Wilson's giving the lie to an important claim in the President’s 2003 State of the Union address. Not “privileged” in the sense of information obtained from a “whistleblower” trying to leak information on the skullduggery of the avengers, surely? Or would these editorial writers regard Karl or Scooter as “whistleblowers” for feloniously leaking the identity of a CIA agent in an effort to reveal how it came to be that Wilson had been assigned by the agency in 2002 to track down the uranium rumors out of Niger?

The Times Reports on The Times--Briefly

As to the suspect supposition, had the editorial writers under Gail Collins read the three paragraphs in the remarkable inside probe report by Douglas Jehl in the July 28 Times:

"Ms. Miller never wrote a story about the matter. She has refused to testify in response to a court order directing her to testify in response to a subpoena from Mr. Fitzgerald seeking her testimony about a conversation with a specified government official between July 6, 2003, and July 13, 2003.

"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 ("A Chronicle of Confusion in the U.S. Hunt for Hussein's Chemical and Germ Weapons”)[*] about Iraq and the hunt for unconventional weapons, ACCORDING to Ms. Abramson, who is now managing editor of The Times.

"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."[**]

Yet, with absolute certainty, the editorial of August 15 informed Times readers that “Miller is not going to change her mind. She appears unwavering in her mission to safeguard the freedom of the press to do its job effectively. If she is not willing to testify after 41 days, then she is not willing to testify. It's time for the judge and the prosecutor to let Ms. Miller go.” It even sounded like special pleading from the publisher, hoping to escape further embarrassment.

Inasmuch as she had been ordered to testify as part of an investigation into the disclosure of the identity of a covert operative of the Central Intelligence Agency, the editorial board had to concede that “it is not yet clear where the investigation is going, or why Ms. Miller's testimony was demanded by Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor."

"It is true that some journalists have abused and overused unnamed sources over the years. But in the main, the secret source is not a convenience for the news media or a shortcut for an easy story. Think about the civil servant who sees a superior lying and breaking the law. Think about the employee who sees a manager whitewashing a report on a hazardous product.

With First Amendment colors flying, the mid-August editorial concluded:

“As she was standing in a Washington courtroom preparing to go to jail, Ms Miller told the judge, ‘If journalists cannot be trusted to guarantee confidentiality, then journalists cannot function and there cannot be a free press.’ Miller has spent 41 days trying to preserve that guarantee. That is far too long, for her, for us and especially for a country that prides itself on exporting its belief in a free press to the rest of the world.”


Preemptive PR with Worse to Come?

Was this ringing editorial backing its jailed reporter another step in a pre-emptive PR campaign by The Times, as Arianna Huffington labeled it? It appeared on the same day that Miller’s lawyer, Floyd Abrams, appeared in a “love-in” on CNN with Lou Dobbs. Abrams acknowledged that special prosecutor Fitzgerald might bring further charges against Miller, possibly involving criminal contempt.

Abrams pleaded:

“She doesn't stand above the law. She knows she doesn't stand above the law. She's in prison. She didn't run away. She's serving her time in prison, as a way of ... illustrating that she's not above the law. Judy believes that when she made a promise, she committed herself, her honor and her profession, and so she really doesn't have any choice but to keep her word.

Incidentally, as reported by AP, when Times counsel Floyd Abrams was asked why prosecutors had sought Miller's testimony when she never wrote a story about Plame, he said: “We don't know, but most likely somebody testified to the grand jury that he or she had spoken to Judy."

Abrams had charged that what Huffington "dislikes Judy Miller for, is not this, but earlier reporting she did on weapons of mass destruction. And because of that reporting, she refuses to give her the credit for acting out of the principle that animates her." It is awfully hard to separate the two since Miller was still on the WMD beat when she talked to government officials about Plame in the summer of 2003. Moreover, Dobbs himself ended the interview with this comment: “There is a reluctance all around to recognize to what extent the controversies surrounding the Plame case are about the war in Iraq; and the central role played by Times editors in selling it.”

Refusal to Give Up Making Excuses for WMD Reporting

Just this week, The Times ran an editorial critical of President Bush’s latest arguments for staying the course in Iraq ("President Bush's Loss of Faith," August 24). Nonsensically, however, it included this paragraph:

“Most Americans believed that their country had invaded Iraq to eliminate weapons of mass destruction, but we know now that those weapons did not exist. If we had all known then what we know now, the invasion would have been stopped by a popular outcry, no matter what other motives the president and his advisers may have had.”

Hunh? As one Washington newspaperman commented to me: “What got me was The Times looking the other way on the paper's responsibility for what we didn't know then--or what we thought we knew that was bogus.”

The Times Hoisted On Its Own Petard

Then there are the questions about the judgment of the publisher and the executive editor. It is beyond comprehension how The Times can be run like a common satrapy, under Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., when it comes to such an explosive political issue that crosses the boundaries and involves one of his favorites. It is as if the top leaders have pulled up the gates and are separated by a moat from the outside world and any legal accountability for the actions of Miller, let alone any responsibility to readers on the story. In a real sense, the top command at the paper could, unwittingly, be aiding and abetting an obstruction of justice. Has executive editor Bill Keller avoided knowing the name(s) of her alleged source(s), with the lawyers providing a wall of insulation? He has claimed--on "Charlie Rose"--that at least one editor at the paper knows who her source(s) were; even though Abrams once indicated to Rose that he did not necessarily know.

To return to Keller’s refusal to respond to Doug Jehl’s questions in the July 28 story:

“The executive editor of The New York Times...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."


Has the executive editor answered these questions for editorial page editor Gail Collins, if not for reporter Jehl, so that she can be secure in writing authoritative editorials on the subject of Miller’s role in the Plame case?

Keller told Joe Strupp in Salon ("Cracks in the Fortress"): “Believe me, I would like nothing better than to tell our staff whatever I know about this case. But we have a colleague who has been in jail for more than a month, and I’d need an awfully compelling reason to divulge information that could in any way complicate her situation further. I have a responsibility to be cautious...” Complicate her, or Times management's, situation?

What about the executive editor’s responsibility to readers? The paper’s image is “of course secondary to the question of whether we are doing something we believe in. We’ve heard from noisy critics...But this is not, at bottom, about any one reporter or any one source. It’s about a principle.” This is pap for politically correct journalistic naifs.

Then this astounding statement to Strupp “While the questions of what Judy knew, and what she was working on, may be matters of general curiosity, the answers don’t touch the heart of the case.” How is that? “The question of what is going on with the case—meaning what the special prosecutor is up to, and why he seems to regard Judy as important to the case—is a mystery to me. It’s something I’d like to have answered--not just for our staff, but for our readers.” On "Charlie Rose" (August 2) he admitted that he does not know what conversations she has had with confidential source(s), and their lawyers, about getting a genuine, uncoerced waiver.

In other words, Bill Keller does not know what Judith Miller knows, let alone where the investigation is headed, and he and Sulzberger are willing to bet the farm, nevertheless!

It is one thing to establish a working separation between the news and editorial departments of a newspaper. It is quite another to insulate both from the private whims of the publisher who had been party--along with Howell Raines--to a license for her to operate without the normal editorial supervision, in the Washington bureau and in Iraq. She did play by different rules than other reporters. A few times too often, Sulzberger has pontificated in referring to Miller: “There are times when the greater good of our democracy demands an act of conscience.”

But surely it is a fair expectation that the editorial board reads what Times reporters are reporting. Do Gail Collins or Andrew Rosenthal have a unique pipeline to Judith Miller when writing that the latter is behind bars for protecting privileged information? Are they just taking publisher Sulzberger’s word for it? Or is it just a matter of faith in one of The Times’ most discredited journalists that explains the frequent editorials hailing the bravery of a principled reporter?

How does Collins--or a subcommittee of the editorial board--know that Miller’s mission is to “safeguard the freedom of the press to do its job effectively” and not to facilitate an Administration coverup? Again, the August 15 editorial admitted that it is not clear where the investigation is going, or “why Ms. Miller’s testimony was demanded” by prosecutor Fitzgerald. Given such absence of hard information, a little more caution in editorial stance would seem to be in order.

Does Anyone Making Decisions at The Times Bother to Connect Dots?

Who did the editorial writers have in mind--assuming an awareness of Miller’s notorious reliance on anonymous INC sources (and neo-con officials in the administration) in reporting the existence of WMD in Iraq--when writing “it is true that some journalists have abused and overused unnamed sources over the years”? Tellingly, the editorial argued that secret sources are a means for protecting a whistleblowing civil servant or employee of a private company, but did not add: or a top government official leaking the name of a secret CIA operative. Norman Pearlstine, editor in chief of Time Inc., recently said on Court TV: "A 90-second conversation with the President's spin doctor, who was trying to undermine a whistle-blower, probably didn't deserve confidential source status."

It is to turn the Plame case on its head to suggest that Miller, of all people, was gathering materials for a story that cast a critical light on the motives and actions of those officials who partook in a potential federal crime in leaking the identity of Plame. It is to make a mockery of the very idea of shielding whistleblowers from adverse consequences. 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 are effectively 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, or what, is Miller protecting?

Bill Kovach, once the bureau chief of The Times in Washington, recently was quoted:

“Whoever was leaking that information to Novak, Cooper or Judy Miller was doing it with malice aforethought, trying to set up a deceptive circumstance. That would invalidate any promise of confidentiality. You wouldn't protect a source for telling lies or using you to mislead your audience. That changes everything.”

Conclusion

Do the top editors of The New York Times have enough detachment to have an idea of how the kid-gloves treatment of Miller’s role in the Plame affair affects the paper’s place as part of the greater Fourth Estate? That is, we have the leading newspaper in the world engaged in a kind of petty coverup to protect one of its employees-–without a scrap of public evidence that the reporter was reporting, let alone interested in exposing government skullduggery. It is hard not to conclude that either this relates back to the “warhawk” stance of columnist-cum-editor Bill Keller (and others) on the invasion of Iraq; or it devolves into personal relationships, a kind of nepotism. In any case, the newspaper of record has been severely compromised.

There are a lot of chips on the table. As one reporter said of The Times’ unyielding support for Miller (Salon, August 17):

“It is a big bet for the paper. The paper chose to make this into something to fight to the death. It may have possible negative consequences for the paper’s image [with] people spending an enormous amount of time and energy on the credibility of the paper.”


What price Judith Miller to The New York Times?


* The author, in Editor & Publisher Online (July 23, 2003), wrote a severe critique of Miller’s attempt to dig out of the hole she had made for herself: “Miller's 2nd Draft of WMD History: 'NY Times' Still Has Questions to Answer.” The lengthy "A Chronicle of Confusion in the U.S. Hunt for Hussein's Chemical and Germ Weapons" was the first under her sole byline since she departed the war zone in May. It amounted to a mea culpa on the part of the star reporter and one attempt by "the newspaper of record" to play catch-up in covering the most controversial issue following the U.S. invasion of Iraq -- the unsuccessful search for the weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

** Jehl had written a front-page story in The Times of September 29, 2003: "Agency Belittles Information Given by Iraqi Defectors; Pentagon Intelligence Review Says Debriefings Provided Little of Any Value." Far down in his report was this admission: "The Iraqi National Congress [INC] had made some ... defectors available to ... The New York Times, which reported their allegations about ... the country's weapons programs." This was a rather direct repudiation of several stories written by Judith Miller for over a year in which she relied upon the INC's Chalabi and defectors he provided for front-page exclusives on supposed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq.