Some reporters who cover the police begin to think of themselves as policemen. And some, like the now infamous Judith Miller of the New York Times, drift into thinking they are policy-makers, wrecking in the process the reputation of a great newspaper, degrading essential principles of journalism, and, in this particular case, abetting neoconservatives in taking America into an extremely destructive, hopeless, and endless war in Iraq. Such is the influential power of the New York Times and such is the dimension of its failure when the paper's editors abdicated their core responsibility in neglecting to rein in an "intrepid" reporter with an already questionable reputation.
Ms. Miller's journalistic sin was to dissolve the dividing line between herself and her sources. But what of her editors? God created editors to stop a paper from falling into just this kind of trap. Whilst some reporters may fancy themselves policy-makers, as Ms. Miller did, her editors should have stopped her, recognizing that they were allowing the Times to become a public-relations tool in the advancement of the neoconservative agenda for the American invasion of Iraq.
How did things go so far wrong? Where did the system of checks and balances fail?
It is well documented that Ms. Miller had done this sort of deception before, as many of us who worked alongside her as correspondents and reporters for the New York Times witnessed for decades. There is little doubt she got away with it due to the "protection" extended to her by numerous editors and bosses who either shared her political and world views or feared her personal and professional wrath.
In her conversations with co-workers, Miller often and repeatedly made claims, insinuations and not-so-subtle assertions of possessing a "special relationship" with the paper's young publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. Mr. Sulzberger did nothing to alleviate this notion by showing up publicly right behind Ms. Miller as she was released after the 85 days of prison time she unnecessarily served. Many of us believe Miller did this prison stint, not for a principled defense of journalism or the first amendment, but to dramatically retrieve her sinking career, write books and reinvent herself in a new "heroic" light.
Ms. Miller, as the Times columnist Maureen Dowd noted, always had a particularly skewed sense of the kind of relationship she cultivated with men in power, towards whom she naturally gravitated all her life. Many insiders felt she often confused her role as reporter with that of girlfriend, which the record plainly suggests.
As one example, Abe Rosenthal, the then-executive editor of the New York Times took her off covering Congress when he found out she shared a home with Les Aspin, then a member of Congress. She never bothered to let the paper know of this glaring conflict of interest. Indeed, there is an oft-repeated saying in the Times which followed that episode: "It is okay to cover the circus, but you cannot sleep with the elephants." This was attributed to Abe, but regardless of who actually originated it, it is now known as an article of faith to everyone who ever worked at the paper.
Ms. Miller was subsequently removed from several assignments, including deputy Washington Bureau chief and chief national security reporter, after the weapons of mass destruction debacle revealed her seriously faulty reporting. But the glaring question remains: Precisely why was she never fired, or seriously censured? How come she never met a senior editor in the Times with enough cojones to stop this train-wreck of a reporter. And how can the current executive editor, Bill Keller, have the chutzpah to say that, after banning her from national security assignments, she kept "drifting" back? Why was the person in charge not in charge of her?
Inevitably Judy "Miss Run Amok" Miller became a runaway train, picking up speed on the way to a major wreck, which has now arrived. We are now left to contemplate the ruinous damage inflicted on the reputation and credibility of a great paper.
The dimension of the catastrophe is better grasped when we think that as of this week, the Iraq war has officially cost the lives of 2,000 American soldiers and still counting. More than 30,000 servicemen and women are maimed for life and well over 150,000 Iraqis, mostly civilians, are dead, wounded or homeless. In other words we are looking at a war crime, advocated by Ms. Miller's faulty reporting -- a journalistic war crime in itself, committed in the news pages of the Times.
To put it more bluntly: A reporter without scruples in the newspaper of record helped embroil the USA in an endless war with no exit. Deception at the Times, sadly, is not an isolated incident. It's happened before, as evidenced by the Jayson Blair fiasco in which a reporter was allowed in the Times to print for a month fabricated stories without being caught simply because he was favored and protected by the executive editor. The distinction here is that Miller's is not small-scale delusional story-telling, but malfeasance on a grand scale, affecting the fate of nations and the real lives of thousands, or perhaps, ultimately, millions of people.
The Times' system of checks and balances has manifestly collapsed. This is serious business, as the New York Times is a pre-eminent member of the fourth estate by which our nation's leaders are held accountable and by which the electorate is informed and our democracy functions. The Times is a national treasure, one which I love and honor. I am very proud of my long career with the paper.
The New York Times is part of our shared history, of who we are as a nation. At its best, it is the finest newspaper in the world. It can and should be a force of light and truth. With its magnificent heritage, it really belongs to all of us, not only the Sulzbergers. It is high time for a massive clean sweep there, for a restoration of the greatness of a fallen institution. This is a scandal that will not go away without quite a few heads rolling. Many cobwebs need to be removed -- not just one reporter, one executive editor, and one publisher.