Paper Chastened


I was a copy boy, reporter, editor, and columnist at The New York Times for more than a quarter-century, and like many of its alumni, I care a lot about what happens at and to the paper. Though I have occasionally criticized the Times on some issues, I admire it as the nation’s leading newspaper, warts and all. It is still looked to as the standard-bearer of the profession’s ethics and reporting principles. Now, its role as journalism avatar and watchdog of government abuses has again been wounded, in part by its own lack of managerial supervision. And that means that journalism in America has been wounded.

In the wake of the Wen Ho Lee and Jayson Blair failures, the Times is in another embarrassing situation, this one about a national security reporter, Judith Miller, who felt she was above the rules and even called herself—facetiously, she claims—”Miss Run Amok.”

The Times‘ own account of this drama—5,800 words of frank, stark, unsparing reporting that ran on page one in Sunday’s paper—painted exactly that picture of Miller, a tenacious and driven reporter who was a loose cannon.

In what has been the paper’s long-standing First Amendment practice, the Times, in 2003, backed Miller’s refusal to identify sources or turn over notes to a special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald. He is investigating whether senior Bush administration officials illegally leaked to reporters the name of a CIA undercover agent, Valerie Plame, in order to punish or intimidate Joseph Wilson, her husband. Wilson is a former U.S. diplomat who was publicly criticizing the Bush administration for “twisting” intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to justify the U.S. war then under way against that nation.

Early in the lengthy Times story—prepared by four reporters “about [Miller’s] role in the investigation and how The New York Times turned her case into a cause”—were these paragraphs, based on interviews with the
Times‘ leaders:

” ‘She’d given her pledge of confidentiality [to a source],’ said Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher. ‘She was prepared to honor that. We were going to support her.’

“But Mr. Sulzberger and the paper’s executive editor, Bill Keller, knew few details about Ms. Miller’s conversations with her confidential source
other than his name. They did not review Ms. Miller’s notes. Mr. Keller said he learned about [a second Miller notebook with Valerie Plame’s name in it] only this month. Mr. Sulzberger was told about it by Times reporters [last] Thursday.

“Interviews show that the paper’s leaders, in taking what they considered to be a principled stand, ultimately left the major decisions in the case up to Ms. Miller, an intrepid reporter whom editors found hard to control.”

When I read self-exposing material like that in a newspaper’s own columns, my reaction is to applaud. As much as this hurts the Times, its leaders have the character to come forward and let their readers see and judge their mistakes. They allow their reporters to do an honest job of telling this tale. They know it’s the only way to handle and come back from a mess like this.

This is not to say Sunday’s story was complete. Much is missing. But that is primarily the doing of Miller and perhaps her lawyers.

Before she was sent off to jail in July for civil contempt, her lawyer, Robert Bennett, said there was no point in jailing her, since she would never agree to testify. But eventually, after 85 days of confinement, she did strike a deal with the prosecutor, turn over notes, and testify to the grand jury about her conversations with one of her sources, who was I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, and a major information spinner in the White House.

Miller provided her personal account for the same issue of the paper. It ran roughly 3,500 words but clarified little. It was riddled with “I don’t knows” and “I don’t recalls.” Her description of her grand jury appearance is guarded. She does reveal that she talked to sources other than Libby about the Wilson-Plame story but says she told the prosecutor she couldn’t recall who they were.

She was equally unforthcoming with the Times reporters who wrote Sunday’s long article. “In two interviews,” their story explained, “Ms. Miller generally would not discuss her interactions with editors, elaborate on [her] written account of her grand jury testimony or allow reporters to review her notes.”

The Times‘ revealing self-examination makes it clear that the paper had allowed her to become a sacred cow. No one seemed to want to rein her in. The piece does not fully explain this reluctance.

Frankly, whatever the missing pieces are, it is obvious that at this point Miller is not telling anything approaching the whole truth. A newspaper and its reporters must explain clearly to readers why information is being withheld. Miller hasn’t been clear. What’s clear is that she’s been fibbing her head off.

Throughout the long Sunday story, her colleagues and editors challenge her accounts and cite her arrogance. There is tension in the Times newsroom. Reporters ask themselves if Miller’s relations with her sources were too close. They wonder if her behavior in the Plame case has anything to do with the stories she wrote before and during the Iraq war that generally supported the Bush-Cheney-hyped claims of an imminent threat to U.S. national security from Iraq’s supposed stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. No such stockpiles or ongoing weapons programs were found.

When Bill Keller became executive editor in the summer of 2003, he says, he told Miller she was not to write about Iraq or weapons issues anymore. But, he says, “she kept kind of drifting on her own back into the national security realm.” Someone allowed that drift.

All through this saga, Miller kept saying that her stands were only about principle—the principle of “the public’s right to know.” But the public is still in the dark.

Miller says she’s going to take some time off now and maybe write a book about these last months. She’d better find a computer keyboard with a lie-detection button. She also says she would like to return to the
Times and write again about national security. The honorable thing would be to resign.

The issue is no longer Miller. It is how the Times will repair and strengthen the checks and balances in its newsroom, so that a single reporter or clique cannot run amok—and take the paper along for the self-destructive ride.

During Miller’s incarceration, the Times felt unable to do normal, aggressive reporting on the case out of concern that it might put Miller at risk for a longer contempt sentence or for more serious charges. One completed story on the case was actually killed by editors, and other story proposals were rejected. One of the final paragraphs of the Times story described it thus:

“The Times incurred millions of dollars in legal fees in Ms. Miller’s case. It limited its own ability to cover aspects of one of the biggest scandals of the day. Even as the paper asked for the public’s support, it was unable to answer [the public’s] questions.”

We need our great newspapers. The Times cannot afford to give up its journalistic mandate and silence itself again.