Saturday, October 22, 2005

Judy Miller: Endgame
After all those high-minded editorials, appeals to principle and hyperbolic declarations issuing from the New York Times during Judith Miller's summer imprisonment, the paper finally seems to be moving toward where many of us have been since Miller's role in the Plame leak scandal first became known. It's an interesting but ultimately academic question whether this change of heart is spurred by a belated recognition of the facts, or just stark terror that their irrational defense of this high-grade hellion was going to damage the bottom line, but either way, the smoke signals clearly read that Miller Time is over at the Times.

See first executive editor Bill Keller's e-mail to the paper's staff, evidently sent Friday afternoon:

I wish that when I learned Judy Miller had been subpoenaed as a witness in the leak investigation, I had sat her down for a thorough debriefing, and followed up with some reporting of my own. It is a natural and proper instinct to defend reporters when the government seeks to interfere in our work. And under other circumstances it might have been fine to entrust the details -- the substance of the confidential interviews, the notes -- to lawyers who would be handling the case. But in this case I missed what should have been significant alarm bells. Until Fitzgerald came after her, I didn't know that Judy had been one of the reporters on the receiving end of the anti-Wilson whisper campaign. I should have wondered why I was learning this from the special counsel, a year after the fact. (In November of 2003 Phil Taubman tried to ascertain whether any of our correspondents had been offered similar leaks. As we reported last Sunday, Judy seems to have misled Phil Taubman about the extent of her involvement.) This alone should have been enough to make me probe deeper.
Dick Stevenson has expressed the larger lesson here in an e-mail that strikes me as just right: "I think there is, or should be, a contract between the paper and its reporters. The contract holds that the paper will go to the mat to back them up institutionally -- but only to the degree that the reporter has lived up to his or her end of the bargain, specifically to have conducted him or herself in a way consistent with our legal, ethical and journalistic standards, to have been open and candid with the paper about sources, mistakes, conflicts and the like, and generally to deserve having the reputations of all of us put behind him or her. In that way, everybody knows going into a battle exactly what the situation is, what we're fighting for, the degree to which the facts might counsel compromise or not, and the degree to which our collective credibility should be put on the line."

Boiled down, Keller is admitting two things: Miller lied to us--her colleagues and management--and in doing so she badly damaged the credibility of the paper. Earlier in the letter, he refers to the Times' struggles in the wake of both the Jayson Blair episode and the specious reporting on WMD in the runup to war with Iraq. That too, of course, was more Miller's doing than anyone else's. The parallel here is quite compelling: Just as leaking Valerie Plame's identity was the original sin of the Bush administration, made more severe by what looks like a conspiracy and cover-up, the Times first erred with Miller's Chalabi-planted stories, and then when she saw her own career threatened--remember why Joseph Wilson went public to start with--she abetted the dirty work of Lewis Libby and the rest of the anti-Wilson cabal.

The Keller letter was, at least in theory, an internal communication. (He must have known it would be leaked, but it wasn't explicitly meant for publication, and I still think it's safe to say that the readership that peruses it on Crooks and Liars is vastly smaller than the NYT audience.) Maureen Dowd's column on Miller, though, was included in Saturday's paper, and is at least as damning. Dowd starts in her entertainingly catty style ("I've always liked Judy Miller"... before relating a story transparently intended to show what a monstrous bitch Miller is), and then lowers the boom:

Judy's stories about W.M.D. fit too perfectly with the White House's case for war. She was close to Ahmad Chalabi, the con man who was conning the neocons to knock out Saddam so he could get his hands on Iraq, and I worried that she was playing a leading role in the dangerous echo chamber that Senator Bob Graham, now retired, dubbed "incestuous amplification." Using Iraqi defectors and exiles, Mr. Chalabi planted bogus stories with Judy and other credulous journalists.
Judy admitted... that she "got it totally wrong" about W.M.D. "If your sources are wrong," she said, "you are wrong." But investigative reporting is not stenography.
She casually revealed that she had agreed to identify her source, Scooter Libby, Dick Cheney's chief of staff, as a "former Hill staffer" because he had once worked on Capitol Hill. The implication was that this bit of deception was a common practice for reporters. It isn't.

She said that she had wanted to write about the Wilson-Plame matter, but that her editor would not allow it. But Managing Editor Jill Abramson, then the Washington bureau chief, denied this, saying that Judy had never broached the subject with her.

It also doesn't seem credible that Judy wouldn't remember a Marvel comics name like "Valerie Flame." Nor does it seem credible that she doesn't know how the name got into her notebook and that, as she wrote, she "did not believe the name came from Mr. Libby."

An Associated Press story yesterday reported that Judy had coughed up the details of an earlier meeting with Mr. Libby only after prosecutors confronted her with a visitor log showing that she had met with him on June 23, 2003. This cagey confusion is what makes people wonder whether her stint in the Alexandria jail was in part a career rehabilitation project.

Judy refused to answer a lot of questions put to her by Times reporters, or show the notes that she shared with the grand jury. I admire Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and Bill Keller for aggressively backing reporters in the cross hairs of a prosecutor. But before turning Judy's case into a First Amendment battle, they should have nailed her to a chair and extracted the entire story of her escapade.

Judy told The Times that she plans to write a book and intends to return to the newsroom, hoping to cover "the same thing I've always covered - threats to our country." If that were to happen, the institution most in danger would be the newspaper in your hands.

Dowd sticks the shiv in at the end, almost gratuitously--though I won't deny I like it. But the bigger story here is that there's no way in hell the paper would have allowed this to see print two months ago, probably not even two weeks ago. Better late than never, though sooner would have been better for both the Times and its readers.

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