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William E. Jackson Jr.

William E. Jackson Jr.

Posted: April 18, 2006 07:38 PM

Why Bill Keller Cannot 'Move On' From the Miller/Libby Scandal


Cortona, Italy
April 18, 2006

From the disputed close results of the Italian election to the ongoing fuss over the role of the Italian media in politics, one is struck by the similarities to the current American scene in the Bush-Cheney era. It is not just a national leader who comes across at times as a clown -- Bush buddy, Berlusconi -- but also a government that has lost its ability to govern under a cloud of official legerdemain and lawbreaking.

In the midst of springtime under the Tuscan sun, out of the blue comes a pitiful defense by NYT executive editor Bill Keller of how he handled the Judith Miller WMD misreporting scandal; and yet another lame rationalization of The Times' role in the Plame/Libby/Miller legal case. ["Keller of NYT Wants to Turn the Page on Judith Miller Saga (Again)," Editor & Publisher, April 12, 2006]

It seems clear that even the faux stoic Keller grasps the reality history will condemn his and publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.'s tenure, 2003-2006. Moreover, his repeated mea culpas are a dead giveaway that there is still real unhappiness in The Times family -- and obviously among the lowly readers -- over the WMD/Miller stain on their collective reputation. For it serves to overshadow the impressive rejuvenated coverage of national security matters by the new editorial blood in the Washington bureau.

There is a lingering feeling that the publisher and the executive editor committed some disreputable acts involving the business of the Republic during the Miller saga that are yet to come out in the evolution of the Plame-Libby-White House odyssey. In addition, there has not been full disclosure of Miller's severance contract with The Times; for example, the rumored "non-disparagement" clause. Note how Keller continues to be ever so careful to praise her, excuse her, explain her -- but not seriously critcize her -- even though he acknowledges that mistakes were made and he should have executed the mea culpa two-step on the "flawed" WMD coverage after he came on board in the summer of 2003.

Why does Keller play Times readers like chumps? In responding ("Talk to the Newsroom") to continuing critical queries about Miller's sensational but incurious reporting on the quest for WMD in Iraq -- relying upon Chalabi and high-up neo-con leakers from within the Administration -- and the checkered coverage of the Plame-Libby legal case, Keller "sighs" and plaintively asks what more could an executive editor have done? Quote: "I can't imagine that there is anything to say about the Judy Miller episode that I have not already said...over and over." Over and over, indeed, with little variation and scant imagination.

What has he deliberately NOT said, and NOT acted upon, based on insider knowledge and responsibility? Transparency -- as in Keller's refusal to answer a few dozen questions from the public editor of The Times about the December 15, 2006, blockbuster story by Risen and Lichtblau that revealed warrantless surveillance by the NSA on a grand scale? Jay Rosen of PressThink has nailed him: Keller will not talk about "the back story." Indeed, the executive editor is more enamored with access to people and institutions of power than he is concerned about readers getting the full story.

Referring to The Times' "registering" -- what a choice of word -- of the Miller scandal as merely "an important cautionary tale," he would have us all "move on." But, like the Bush White House on the war, Keller, when he uses that phrase, is suggesting that we undergo a lobotomy over one of the darkest chapters in American journalism.

Ah, but "the story has an afterlife" -- alas -- "in the impending trial of Scooter Libby." And Keller is out to spin public opinion. Indeed, in the leadup to the invasion, and the subsequent occupation of Iraq, both the White House and The Times have an afterlife -- or a hangover -- relevant to that trial. The obfuscations of both institutions constitute major coverups.

With the NYT as an object of "grassy-knoll" conspiracy theories, with bloggers feeding on "harebrained" speculation, pray tell why Bill Keller should be considered as any less credulous? Miller having left The Times, he has "little to add that has not been already copiously covered in the pages" of the paper of record. Really?

He means that there is not anymore he cares to reveal to his reporters, and readers. He "had a lot of reasons for not" publishing the tame mea culpa on WMD coverage a year earlier. Well, let him now tell us about the reasons other than the priority of "protecting an errant reporter" over "coming clean with readers."

As Arianna keeps reminding The Times (HuffingtonPost, April 18) there are still quite a few rather important unanswered questions that bear upon not only the newspaper's integrity, but also the integrity of the Administration at the highest levels. Keller betrays sort of a sophomoric conceit when treating serious matters as hijinks.

When will Bill Keller stop trying to glorify Judy Miller's conduct, and the self-inflicted damage to The New York Times, with descriptions of her case as "the leading edge of a serious and continuing threat to fearless journalism," while wrapping the whole mess in the beribboned package of "an alarming assault on our ability to explain how the government and other powerful institutions work"? For the sake of the Fourth Estate, give it up, man -- "whatever one thinks of Judy Miller, her run-in with the special counsel, and her 85 days in jail for refusing to divulge a source" (Scooter Libby).

[To be continued...]