By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

All Miller, all the time

Well, it’s finally here. The New York Times, as promised, has published a long overview of Judith Miller’s role in the Valerie Plame investigation, as well as a first-person account by Miller of what she told the grand jury. At 5,900 and 3,600 words, respectively, we should learn much. We don’t. For now, a few observations:

1. Miller’s refusal to cooperate with her colleagues’ attempt to set the record straight is stunning. This paragraph from the main story says it all: “In two interviews, Ms. Miller generally would not discuss her interactions with editors, elaborate on the written account of her grand jury testimony or allow reporters to review her notes.”

2. The lead story is suffused with personal contempt for Miller. Her grotesquely wrong stories claiming that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a veritable hotbed of unconventional weapons and terrorist gangs is fair game, as is the weirdly disturbing manner in which she conducted herself with Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby. But I’m not sure what to make of this:

TIMES: Inside the newsroom, she was a divisive figure. A few colleagues refused to work with her.

“Judy is a very intelligent, very pushy reporter,” said Stephen Engelberg, who was Ms. Miller’s editor at The Times for six years and is now a managing editor at The Oregonian in Portland. “Like a lot of investigative reporters, Judy benefits from having an editor who’s very interested and involved with what she’s doing.”

In the year after Mr. Engelberg left the paper in 2002, though, Ms. Miller operated with a degree of autonomy rare at The Times.

Douglas Frantz, who succeeded Mr. Engelberg as the investigative editor, said that Ms. Miller once called herself “Miss Run Amok.”

“I said, ‘What does that mean?’ ” said Mr. Frantz, who was recently appointed managing editor at The Los Angeles Times. “And she said, ‘I can do whatever I want.’ “

Ms. Miller said she remembered the remark only vaguely but must have meant it as a joke, adding, “I have strong elbows, but I’m not a dope.”

It’s one thing for New York magazine to mock your personal life, as happened last year. It’s quite another to be subjected to this kind of treatment in your own paper. I’m still thinking about whether it was warranted, but it doesn’t seem to me that relevance is firmly established.

3. The biggest anti-Miller bombshell comes from Miller herself:

MILLER: Mr. Fitzgerald [a reference to Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor] asked about a notation I made on the first page of my notes about this July 8 meeting, “Former Hill staffer.”

My recollection, I told him, was that Mr. Libby wanted to modify our prior understanding that I would attribute information from him to a “senior administration official.” When the subject turned to Mr. Wilson, Mr. Libby requested that he be identified only as a “former Hill staffer.” I agreed to the new ground rules because I knew that Mr. Libby had once worked on Capitol Hill.

That, folks, is close enough to a lie by any standard, and Miller was willing to go along with it – to deceive her readers on behalf of a source.

Howard Kurtz, in the Washington Post, blandly calls it a “journalistic issue” and claims the “former Hill staffer” description is “technically accurate.” I suspect Kurtz will do better than that once he’s had time to think about it.

In a fierce commentary for Editor & Publisher calling on the Times to fire Miller, Greg Mitchell has this to say about Libby’s request: “This was obviously to deflect attention from the Cheney office’s effort to hurt Wilson. [Bush critic Joseph Wilson is Plame’s husband, and a leading theory is that the White House blew Plame’s CIA cover in order to retaliate against Wilson.] Surely Judy wouldn’t go along with this? Alas, Miller admits, ‘I agreed to the new ground rules because I knew that Mr. Libby had once worked on Capitol Hill.'”

This much is sure: Miller admits she was willing to lie to her readers, and she seems even now not to realize how serious that is. Not good.

4. We still don’t know how Fitzgerald glommed on to Miller in the first place. Remember, Miller never actually wrote a story about the Plame matter, unlike Time magazine’s Matt Cooper and, of course, syndicated columnist Robert Novak. This doesn’t reduce her legal exposure, as some of the more reductive analyses would seem to suggest, but it certainly makes you wonder how Fitzgerald knew that she had received information about Plame. Perhaps Fitzgerald himself will tell us when he finally issues his report.

Finally: As you might expect, Jay Rosen is threatening to pull an all-nighter. If you’re staying up, tune in here.



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3 Comments

  1. Jay Rosen

    I do believe you’re making fun of me, Dan. Sort of like the Clinton crew with the pizzas and the late hours? Just for that, here’s what I wrote on my “all nighter.” Now I’m going to bed….(I want your considered take too) …Maybe the biggest mistake the New York Times made was to turn decision-making for the newspaper over to Judith Miller and her “case.” This happened via the magic medium of a First Amendment struggle, the thing that makes the newspaper business more than just a business to the people prominent in it.Miller’s defiance played to their images of Times greatness, and to their understanding of First Amendment virtue. She always described her case in the language of their principles. They heard their principles talking in the very facts of the case.But her second attorney saw it more clearly. “I don’t want to represent a principle,” Robert Bennett told her. “I want to represent Judy Miller.” And that it is what he did. That is what she needed. The Times was the one left holding the principles.Mostly they didn’t apply to a case that was bad on the facts, a loser on the law, quite likely to result in victory for the prosecutor, and quite possibly an ethical swamp or political sewer, since it was about using the press to discredit people without being named. All this would warn a prudent person away. It’s why other news organizations settled.It never seems to have registered with Arthur Sulzberger, Jr.—Miller’s biggest supporter and the publisher of the newspaper—that he was fighting for the right to keep things secret, not for the right to publish what had improperly been kept from us. By taking on Miller’s secret-keeping (uncritically) the Times took on more and more responsibilities not to speak, not to publish, not to report. All this is deadly for a newspaper, and the staff knew it. By the end the readers knew it and they were crying out. Even the armchair critics knew a thing or two.So did Bill Keller, so did Jill Abramson. But there was nothing they could do. By the time they realized what Miller’s secrets had done to their journalism, Judith Miller—by staging a First Amendment showdown she escaped from—had effectively hijacked the newspaper. Her principles were in the saddle, and rid the Times to disaster, while people of the Times watched. The newspaper never got its Robert Bennett.And in the end her secret-keeping extended to stiffing the Times on its own story. The newspaper’s First Amendment hero wouldn’t talk, share notes, or answer any tough questions.The spooky thing about her first person account was the suggestion that Judy Miller may have—today—security clearances that her bosses (and colleagues) do not have. This could be the reason her treatment is so singular. She said the prosecutor asked her if she still had special clearances when she met with Lewis Libby. She said she didn’t know. Does that sound good?

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