Three times John Miller has jumped from reporter to an institution he covered as a reporter.
Here’s a brief timeline:
1973-1994: Journalist, including 10 years as an investigative reporter for New York’s NBC affiliate.
1994-1995: Law enforcement official, as deputy police commissioner for the NYPD.
1995-2002: Journalist, as a correspondent for ABC’s 20/20.
2003-2005: Law enforcement official, as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Counterterrorism and Criminal Intelligence Bureau.
2005-2011: Law enforcement official, as the FBI’s assistant director for the Office of Public Affairs.
2011-2013: Journalist, as a senior correspondent for CBS News, including reporting for 60 Minutes.
2014-present: Law enforcement official, as NYPD’s deputy commissioner of intelligence.
That so many respectable employers have hired Miller indicates his competence. Perhaps he will make New Yorkers even safer during his tenure at One Police Plaza. By taking that pursuit, though, he’s done a disservice to journalism.
Miller is not the first reporter to make this sort of switch–newsrooms are shrinking and folks have families to feed. He has, however, crossed the bridge more frequently than most, and certainly in a brighter spotlight than anyone.
He has shown that there is a viable, and lucrative, career in circling the revolving door between journalism and law enforcement (or any other institution).
The revolving door, of course, has long poisoned politics — with public officials taking jobs with the banks or oil companies or lobbying firms they were supposed to be regulating. But, well, politics has always been cynical. Talk to ten guys off any street in world and probably nine will tell you that the only reason any right-minded person would want to run for office is for the power and riches it can bring.
And while the journalism industry certainly has its shortcomings, there are just enough stories every year — from Ted Conover’s undercover expose on slaughterhouses in May to Paul Tough’s vivid portrait this month of a fisherman who fell into the sea — to keep alive the ideal that the craft’s foremost incentive is to reveal truths. This often means that many of its practitioners tell themselves that journalism is not a career but a lifestyle or a calling, that the reporter is a participant observer detached from the greater world by a notebook and pen. This ideal is a necessary counterweight against the inevitable outside pressures — to sell papers, draw page clicks, win awards.
The incentive can change, though, when the revolving door is legitimized–when an aspiring and well-educated young scribe begins to see the newsroom as a potential stepping stone to a more stable, more lucrative job on the other side of the phone, in city hall or One Police Plaza or Goldman Sachs.
It’s common enough for reporters — covering politics, sports, courts, crime, business, and elsewhere–to get too cozy with the people they write about, spending enough hours at a place to feel a subconscious loyalty toward it. All the more so if the thought of sending in a resume crosses the mind.
This is why, even before he officially accepted the NYPD job, Miller took much heat for his final 60 Minutes piece, a segment on the National Security Agency. After it aired, Ryan Lizza, who covered the subject for the New Yorker, tweeted: “Wow, the ’60 Minutes’ piece about NSA was just embarrassing. Kudos to the NSA communication staff. You guys should get a raise.”
New York Times media critic David Carr, who called it “a friendly infomercial for the agency,” wondered, “On what planet is it fine for someone like Mr. Miller, a former federal law enforcement official, to be the one to do a big segment on a major government security agency?”
During an interview with Miller and police commissioner Bill Bratton on Thursday, Charlie Rose asked Miller, “Are you in your heart a journalist or a law enforcement official?”
I would change that to say am I a journalist or an intelligence officer, only because there’s almost no difference. Intelligence is nothing more than understanding a problem. Intelligence with very good analysis is understanding a problem well enough to do something about it. That means collecting the facts, analyzing them down to what do they mean, what’s the potential effect and what’s the potential response. The work of intelligence officers and reporters is extraordinarily similar. You become a briefer. You tell your boss, here’s the bottom line. These are the potential responses. That’s kind of what you all do.
Sure, there’s almost no difference in the work, the process. The fundamental difference is in the purpose — one job requires a mindset that there are many facts the public should not know, the other job requires a mindset that the public has a right to know as many facts as possible. But a few spins in the revolving door and maybe the distinctions vanish.