07/07/2005 08:41 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Three Cheers for Judith Miller

Lord knows, it's easy to fault Judith Miller's reporting during the lead-up to the war in Iraq, as Harry Shearer does so passionately. As Michael Massing showed in the New York Review of Books, of all the bad reporting during that time, Miller"s was probably the worst—and, unfortunately, it was as influential as it was bad.

But does that mean progressives and First Amendment advocates should now abandon her as she sits in jail for refusing to disclose her source? Is it really fair to ask, as Shearer does, "Is there such a thing as karma? If so, Judith Miller is in the pokey as punishment for helping to get over 1700 Americans and thousands of Iraqis killed for a reason yet to be determined."

These are tough times for journalists. The media's credibility is lower than at any point since perhaps the turn of the last century, and not because it's doing a worse job than usual, but because it's the target of sustained political attacks from both sides of the ideological spectrum...and because any press exposed to the blogosphere, at any time in history, would have its failings glaringly exposed. It's just that never before have so many media critics been able to disseminate their criticisms, and predictably, the media's image has suffered.

In that context, it's inspiring to see a journalist remind the public of how seriously we take our craft. There's lots of discussion now about what constitutes a journalist: Are bloggers journalists? Are talking heads? Is Bill O'Reilly a journalist? What about Armstrong Williams?

That discussion is fostered by the fact that, unlike law and medicine—or even, in my state, hairdressers—American journalism has never been a licensed guild, but an open profession. I think that's one of the great things about the free press in this country, but it does lead to frequent confusion about just exactly what a journalist is.

Well, Judith Miller is currently suggesting one definition: journalists are people who play by the longstanding rules of the profession and live with the consequences.

(Bob Woodward, in protecting Deep Throat's identity for decades, serves up the same lesson.)

How many bloggers would do the same? How many pundits? As Lawrence O'Donnell himself admitted, he didn't write his big scoop about Karl Rove's alleged role in the leak of Valerie Plame's name because he didn't want to get "dragged" before a grand jury. This despite the fact that he'd had his information "for months."

In an eloquent editorial this morning, the Times reminds us why this fight is so important. And in a refreshing bit of honesty, the paper notes:

"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."

Another thing that makes this far from an ideal case, of course, is that the reporter involved is one whose work is hotly contested.

No matter. As the Times concludes, "What is at stake is nothing less than our society's perpetual bottom line: the citizens control the government in a democracy. We stand with Ms. Miller and thank her for taking on that fight for the rest of us."

Indeed. Judith Miller may be an imperfect hero, but in this fight, she's still a hero.