Bloggingheads Welcomes Judith Miller; Commenters Don't

Bloggingheads went out on a limb yesterday, providing a platform for controversial ex-New York Times reporter Judith Miller, best known for totally getting the WMD story wrong and buttressing the administration's faulty intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war, and second-best known for going to jail to protect her source, Scooter Libby, and being stripped of her hero status — and her Times status — in the aftermath of her release. She is third-best known for being the recipient of a creepy poem about aspens. The Arabic-speaking Miller was long regarded as an expert in the region, having written intensely about it from the vantage point of numerous Middle Eastern countries, and is the author of God Has Ninety-Nine Names as well as Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War. We will leave the raging debate about Miller's expertise for another day; suffice it to say that she seems well-qualified to discuss the topic of female suicide bombers, having just published "The Bomb Under the Abaya" in Policy Review, a 7,000-word feature on women who become suicide bombers.

Miller spoke with national security expert Jacqueline Shire, who greeted her brightly and engaged in a long and thoughtful diavlog with her (though it should be noted that last year, Shire took Miller to task on Bloggingheads for her WSJ piece on Libya's WMD capability, noting that Miller had exaggerated slightly but noticeably). Meanwhile, over on HuffPost proper, Bloggingheads top dog Bob Wright took the unusual step of posting about the interview (it's his second post, first in a year), leading with the following: "What ever happened to former New York Times reporter and alleged neocon sympathizer Judith Miller? She's just resurfaced and is aiding and abetting the left!"

No surprise that Miller would need some PR help: The comments on the divalog are pretty scathing along the lines of "Holy crap, why would Bloggingheads ever showcase Judith Miller?" (That was the theme of the email I received forwarding me the link.) Bloggingheads — wonky, earnest Bloggingheads — is known for being all about cred (insert raging debate about the definition of said "cred" here), and is seen to confer a certain rarefied, smarty-pants imprimatur (again, debate amongst yourselves) — and the commenters were not impressed:
  • "Will we be seeing Rick Bragg and Howell Raines here next?"
  • "Why is she being given a platform here? Could Bob not find anyone more intellectually dishonest — the festering corpse of Richard Nixon, perhaps?"
  • "Good Christ.... Judith Miller?? How can we trust that anything she says is aboveboard? Credibility does matter, you know."
  • "How would it be possible to guess when she's lying and when she isn't?"
  • "Next up on Bloggingheads - Jayson Blair and Steven Glass."

..but also, some minority voices:

  • "Putting Miller's past aside and judging her appearance here on its merits, I'd say she did a great job. Very articulate and compassionate, and a good command of the topic she's discussing. And Jackie did a good job interviewing her. Great diavlog."
  • "I'm a little taken aback by how vehemently the Bloggingheads commentariat warns against Miller. OK, already. I'm always big on scepticism. But what Miller and Shire discuss here is important. This is exactly what we need to learn about. Miller's chosen topic needs reporting, and she has clearly put some effort into it. I am grateful for this diavlog."

Wright, hardly an intellectual slouch, is clearly in the latter camp, and clearly stands behind Miller's right to opine on BH, enough that he took the extra step of advertising his support on HuffPo. And, to be fair, Miller was in the hands of a highly capable interviewer and clearly knew her topic. Per Wright: "Her findings are strikingly consistent with political scientist Robert Pape's argument that suicide bombing is typically a response to foreign military occupation--and that, when the occupation ends, the suicide bombing ends." But also, Wright is growing his site and a little controversy never hurt, at least to drum up press (see? It's already working!). For her part, it's easy to see why she'd risk the scorn of the above-mentioned commentariat: Career rehabilitation, and acceptance of her as an expert. So, does everybody win? Well, that depends on whether you think that journalists whose continued erroneous and sloppy work contributed to a disastrous and divisive war should ever be allowed to work again, or if you think that someone's good work in the past and potential contributions in the future outweighs the impulse for excommunication. Frankly, we're still deciding; her story is pretty compelling, after all, and it's not like the world could use less insight into suicide bombers. So, our jury is out. Aspens turn in clusters, after all. We still don't know what that means but frankly, neither did Scooter Libby. Fin.

Jacqueline Shire and Judith Miller: The Martyrdom Machine