Truthtelling in the Style of Ed Meese: Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. on Charlie Rose

Thursday night's interview with Charlie Rose was a low point in the public life of Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. He failed in the task before him: to go on television and explain how the Times got into the Judith Miller mess, and how it's going to win back the ground that was lost.

Sulzberger, Jr. also put into a viewer's mind new doubts about his honesty, his capacity to think clearly, his ability to inspire confidence among the talented and driven people who work at the Times, and his awareness of the world outside his suite.

It was bad, and the reviews were bad, but then the worst thing about Sulzberger's performance was how badly he needed to be good on Charlie Rose that night. Times reporters and editors were watching closely to see if their boss, who was Judy Miller's biggest champion, could again become their champion, or at least re-join their factual universe, and make contact with their experience over the last few dispiriting months.

Realists didn't expect him suddenly to trash Judy Miller, or admit that the Times strategy was a huge mistake. I tuned in to see how he responded to events that overcame his arguments. In this sense the Rose interview was a basic test of maturity -- and diplomacy -- for a chief executive in a very public jam.

What he told us on Charlie Rose was (in so many words) "You are all mistaken. There were no events that overcame my arguments. I am not in any public jam." Thus:

* Judith Miller didn't have to resign from the Times because almost no one believed her story or trusted her methods; she retired from the Times because she had become the story, and the reception of her work had become so politicized. Even if she wrote restaurant reviews some people would see an agenda behind them, and so she had to leave.

* The people who work at the Times aren't aghast and depressed and angry at how the paper conducted itself during the Miller ordeal. Instead "morale is just great."

* This wasn't a major blow to confidence in the Times as an institution; or as David Halberstam, a Pulitzer Prize winner for the Times, put it, a "sad and incalculably damaging story." It was really "a rather small bore issue in the big scheme of things." The Jayson Blair episode was much worse, Sulzberger said.

* It's not a big issue for a publisher if the people who put out the newspaper think the Times took a huge hit from the Miller case. Their opinion matters, but not in a major way. "It's a big issue if your readers lose trust and respect," and they haven't.

* Lingering doubts about the Times coverage of weapons of mass destruction, and the tardy and incomplete editors note about it, were not submerged factors in the Miller mess, as Bill Keller said last month. Rather, "those are two different elements... one had very little to do with the other." And: "We owned those errors in a very long and very detailed editors' note, and that was then over."

Those answers flunk the recognition of reality test, and the company leadership test, and the test of character. And he chose Charlie Rose because Charlie gives the easiest tests! This was truthtelling in the style of Ed Meese, or Terry McAuliffe, or Ken Lay from Enron.

Jack Shafer's point of comparison was Scott McClellan, and the controlled emptiness of the White House briefing room. Shafer said that reporters should ask Sulzberger if he was legally free to speak his mind. They should. The Times did not say in its announcment of the separation whether there were any restrictions on what Sulzberger, Keller and the newspaper-at-large could say about Miller, any limitations that would affect future news coverage -- or column-writing.

"The Times did not say..." How typical that is of the newspaper's Miller-speak. As Glenn Reynolds, who thought Sulzberger gave a "deeply unimpressive performance," said at Instapundit: "the whole Judy Miller dispute was about not telling the public what the NYT knew." It would have been wise for Sulzberger to apologize for that, but he didn't come close.

Maybe the lawyers got to him, and told him he could say nothing. But Sulzberger didn't sound legally contrained so much as personally put upon that he had to talk about any of this -- and actually respond to public criticism the Times has received. It tells you a lot that genial Charlie Rose, who is so eager for approval from famous and powerful guests, actually lost patience on the air, and berated Sulzberger for answers that were thin and unrevealing. That almost never happens.

Okay x-ray, do your work. That's what I said to myself as I sat down to watch Sulzberger meet the camera's lens. What I could see in his eyes was a small trace of fear, suggesting he somewhere knew his answers weren't working. But all he could do is wish it were over, and the thing is... it's not.
Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York University. His weblog is PressThink. You can find an archive of his writing on the Miller case here.