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October 30, 2005 - Getting the Scoop, and Getting It Wrong













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So what are reporters supposed to do? 

 

As mentioned last weekend in these pages here, Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times had posted on Jim Romenesko's website, Poynter Online, an internal Times memo he thought should be made public, some comments about his star just-out-of-jail reporter Judy Miller.  To wit: "I wish that, when I learned Judy Miller had been subpoenaed ... I had sat her down for a thorough debriefing, and followed up with some reporting of my own. ... I missed what should have been significant alarm bells."

Alarm bells?

 

He thinks he should have sensed that this reporter was compromised. She was being used by the very powerful to plant stories in his newspaper to get what they wanted. He doesn't say that directly, but he implies just that.

As in this: "... if I had known the details of Judy's entanglement with [Scooter] Libby, I'd have been more careful in how the paper articulated its defense, and perhaps more willing than I had been to support efforts aimed at exploring compromises."

He basically questioned whether she had been "open and candid with the paper about sources, mistakes, conflicts and the like."

And the next day Times columnist Maureen Dowd opened up with both barrels, pretty much saying Miller was a shill for the neoconservative leaders in the White House and that odd leader of the then exiled Iraqi Nation Congress –

 

Judy's stories about WMD 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 former Senator Bob Graham dubbed "incestuous amplification." Using Iraqi defectors and exiles, Mr. Chalabi planted bogus stories with Judy and other credulous journalists.

 

The day after that, the Times public editor Byron Calame had this item saying it was time for the Times to "review Ms. Miller's journalistic practices as soon as possible."

They had a journalistic loose cannon on their hands. And they had for years, and they just realized it? It would seem so.

She seems to have had an agenda that was different than that of the organization for which she worked, and an ego as big as Montana, and an in with the publisher to whom Keller, just the editor of the paper, reported.

But what had they been thinking before?

She got them big stories, and increased circulation and influence, and if later they had to retract a few of these items, well, so be it. A newspaper is a commercial enterprise, after all.

On the 25th there is this from Jeremy Gerard, and insider's view –

 

I hold no brief for Judy Miller. In February 1989, after she'd worn out her welcome at the Times' Washington bureau, she returned to West 43rd Street as deputy editor of the newly created Media Business department, where I was a reporter covering the television industry. "It worked out great!" Miller burbled to the New York Post. "I know nothing about communications, but I hope to learn."

She arrived with her own stationery - no black Times Gothic for Judy, but embossed vellum, with a girly pink font announcing her name and title - and the clear signal that every member of our beleaguered cadre would do well to just ignore that troublesome deputy before the word editor. This was going to be The Judy Show, a personal mission to prove that no mere relocation and change of portfolio would get in the way of using the Times to promote herself and her vision of the world.

Even 20 years ago Judy Miller was known as a willing bullhorn for the ruling class, including some she knew intimately. Those men in power are there for a reason, and you're not. Shut up and listen. Morphing from reporter to editor merely gave her more venues to sell that vision. If, like Judy, you understood power at the Times - where the furtive seduction of the boss's boss while twisting the shiv in subordinates can be as important as a talent for getting the story - you did fine.

 

Well, that's unpleasant, but consider what the Times had on their hands. They had an insider. She knew people. The powerful would talk to her. They'd get things off the record no one else could touch. We're talking scoops here.

Why not let her loose? Sure, she'd piss off everyone else around her, but sometimes you absorbed that cost for what you would get in exclusive information.

Anyone who has been a manager knows all about this. We've managed brilliant prima donnas, who'd offend everyone, but deliver the goods. In the systems world, these were the systems analysts who solved the intractable problems by calling some software insider they knew who knew who wrote the code, and then would present a simple fix that would save a month's worth of work. And then they'd ask for a week off and sneer at the other co-workers on the way out the door. No fun at all, for the manager.

Note this from Gerard –

 

The fact is, ever since I joined the Times in 1986, Judy Miller has been infamously unfettered by the professional and personal constraints most other journalists assume to be part of the job. As it happens, I was the last reporter hired by executive editor A.M. Rosenthal before his retirement. Escorting me out of his office upon offering me the job, he sent me off with these words: "You know, it's a bigger risk for us than it is for you."

Though I left the Times in 1991, Abe was half right. Every hire is a risk for the paper; its reputation is always on the line.

 

And now the chickens have come home to roost, oddly because of the CIA leak scandal exposing all the misinformation everyone was being fed, and this prima donna was feeding the Times. The paper is deeply embarrassed.

Well, one can take this all too seriously. It's just a newspaper.

Gerard has it right here –

 

Here's something else a lifelong editor told me when I joined the Times as an eager reporter anxious to leave my mark at the most important newspaper in the world. He was pretty loaded at the time (it was, after all, 12:30 in the afternoon), and he'd just been shifted from one position of uncertain power to another, considerably lower, to make way for someone on the rise, someone who understood better than he that loyalty was for losers. "Love the job," he told me, "but don't ever make the mistake of loving the institution."

 

And that is because the institution needs the insider pain-in-the-ass loose cannon. Miller was the one who knew all the right people in power - her "anonymous sources" were the big guns, the movers and shakers. Funny, they just didn't anticipate those guys would be using her, and the Times, to run a con.

Well, sometimes you win and few, and sometimes you lose.

As for Miller's extraordinary "anonymous sources" about Saddam's active and dangerous nuclear and chemical weapons programs, and those perilous Aluminum tubes, Duncan Black notes this comment at Jim Romenesko's website, Poynter Online –

 

As the New York Times has learned, to its apparent chagrin, when a newspaper quotes anonymous sources, it is substituting its credibility for that of the source. Given the current public opinion of American journalism, should the Times be using its credibility to advance the interests of Scooter Libby, Ahmed Chalabi or anybody else unwilling to stand up for what they say? Should anybody?

 

And Black adds this

 

Not only is the paper substituting its credibility, arguably a paper has a greater degree of credibility to offer (or it least should) than self-interested politicians advancing an agenda. … I think this has the bizarre effect for casual readers of giving the words of anonymous sources more credibility generally than those sources would have if they are named. Statements by anonymous sources written in the Times are essentially read as statements by the Times itself.

 

No wonder the Times is upset. They bought the farm here, as they say.

So what do you do when some insider gives you information no one else has? Of course, you could do you best to verify it. You could do some of what is called "investigative journalism." You could seek some secondary source to make sure you not being fed a line of crap. Or not.

Sometimes the scoop is too good. And in these cases it was too good to be true.  

 

Another pressure, noted by Juan Cole here is what comes from organizations like Fox News - skepticism about what our leaders are saying, particularly in times of war, or possible war, for our very survival, is much like treason. He reminds us that when CNN reporter Christian Amanpour blamed Fox News for creating "a climate of fear and self-censorship" regarding coverage of Iraq, a Fox spokeswoman shot back, "Given the choice, it's better to be viewed as a foot soldier for Bush than a spokeswoman for al-Qaeda."

But this is a mess.

And how will the Times recover?

Note this in the Wall Street Journal, Wednesday, October 26 –

 

New York Times reporter Judith Miller has begun discussing her future employment options with the newspaper, including the possibility of a severance package, a lawyer familiar with the matter, said yesterday.

The discussion about her future comes several days after the public rupture of the relationship between the Times and Ms. Miller, a 28-year veteran of the paper. Both the editor and the publisher of the Times have expressed regret for their unequivocal support for Ms. Miller when she spent 85 days in jail for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury investigating the unmasking of a Central Intelligence Agency operative.

The negotiations began with a face-to-face meeting Monday morning between Ms. Miller and the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., said the lawyer familiar with the situation. A spokeswoman for the New York Times declined to comment. Ms. Miller didn't return calls.

 

She sunk the paper, and this is an effort to re-float it as best they can? Perhaps.

It may be too late. And they may be addicted to "anonymous sources" that will only speak to the right people, to other insiders - or maybe "seduced" is the word, not "addicted."

And they may still want to appear on the side of the administration, but maybe not as the indictments are handed up.

We'll see.

But who is this Judy Miller?

The best profile of here is here, from Franklin Foer in New York Magazine, from long ago, from the June 7, 2004 issue. It's more than a year old, but it's on the money.

First the history:

 

During the winter of 2001 and throughout 2002, Miller produced a series of stunning stories about Saddam Hussein's ambition and capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction, based largely on information provided by Chalabi and his allies - almost all of which have turned out to be stunningly inaccurate.

For the past year, the Times has done much to correct that coverage, publishing a series of stories calling Chalabi's credibility into question. But never once in the course of its coverage - or in any public comments from its editors - did the Times acknowledge Chalabi's central role in some of its biggest scoops, scoops that not only garnered attention but that the administration specifically cited to buttress its case for war.

The longer the Times remained silent on Chalabi's importance to Judith Miller's reporting, the louder critics howled. In February, in the New York Review of Books, Michael Massing held up Miller as evidence of the press's "submissiveness" in covering the war. For more than a year, Slate's Jack Shafer has demanded the paper come clean.

But finally, with Chalabi's fall from grace so complete - the Pentagon has cut off his funding, troops smashed his portrait in raids of the INC office - the Times' refusal to concede its own complicity became untenable. Last week, on page A10, the paper published a note on its coverage, drafted by executive editor Bill Keller himself. The paper singled out pieces that relied on "information from a circle of Iraqi informants, defectors, and exiles bent on 'regime change.' " The note named Ahmad Chalabi as a central player in this group.

This time, however, the omission of Judith Miller's name was conspicuous. "Some critics of our coverage during that time have focused blame on individual reporters. Our examination, however, indicates that the problem was more complicated."

 

Yes, it was.

In February 2004 in these pages you'd find a discussion of what Michael Massing was getting at when he quoted Miller as saying "my job isn't to assess the government's information and be an independent intelligence analyst myself. My job is to tell readers of The New York Times what the government thought about Iraq's arsenal."

The Times had accepted her definition of "reporter as stenographer." Foer says the Times loved her other qualities, what he notes as her ambition, her aggressiveness, her cultivation of sources by any means necessary, her hunger to be first - or at least they thought those qualities outweighed any need to assess anything.

 

Miller is a star, a diva. She wrote big stories, won big prizes. Long before her WMD articles ran, Miller had become a newsroom legend - and for reasons that had little to do with the stories that appeared beneath her byline. With her seemingly bottomless ambition - a pair of big feet that would stomp on colleagues in her way and even crunch a few bystanders - she cut a larger-than-life figure that lent itself to Paul Bunyan-esque retellings. Most of these stories aren't kind. Of course, nobody said journalism was a country club. And her personality was immaterial while she was succeeding, winning a Pulitzer, warning the world about terrorism, bio-weapons, and Iraq's war machine.

 

But now?

 

Foer says her story is a bit of a cautionary tale about "the culture of American journalism."

And he tells it, of course.

The item is long, so click on the link. You find all sorts of things.

Like this:

 

During the forties and fifties, her father, Bill Miller, ran the Riviera nightclub in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Famed for its retractable roof, the Riviera staged shows by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Tito Puente. When the state highway commission ordered the Riviera condemned in 1953, Miller made his way to Vegas, proving his impresario bona fides by reviving the careers of Elvis Presley and Marlene Dietrich.

 

That might explain a lot about how she sees the world.

And there's this:

 

From her first day at the Times, Miller's life and work have been hard to separate, which for a reporter is both a strength and a weakness. "She's a passionate person - she gets caught up in her sources passionately," one of her Times colleagues told me. Friends from her earliest days in Washington noted that she didn't surround herself with people her own age. She sought out the best and brightest at the city's highest levels, dating Larry Sterne, the Washington Post's foreign editor, and hanging out with the defense gurus Richard Perle and Walter Slocum. "These people were powerful. But they were also interesting, and Judy liked talking to them. She is curious and enthusiastic," says one friend from this period.

 

Yeah, and she doesn't mess with low-life folks.

And she got all wrapped up in the Middle East, finally running the Cairo bureau and knowing everyone import, and became obsessed with the WMD issues and terrorism, which led to her "string of grim exclusives."

 

There was the defector who described Saddam Hussein's recent renovation of storage facilities for nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. There was her report that a Russian virologist might have handed the regime a particularly virulent strain of smallpox. To protect themselves against VX and sarin, she further reported, the Iraqis had greatly increased the importation of an antidote to these agents. And, most memorably, she co-wrote a piece in which administration officials suggested that Iraq had attempted to import aluminum tubes for nuclear weapons. Vice-President Dick Cheney trumpeted the story on Meet the Press, closing the circle. Of course, each of the stories contained important caveats. But together they painted a horrifying picture. There was just one problem with them: The vast majority of these blockbusters turned out to be wrong.

 

Oh well, they were dramatic. Think Marlene Dietrich, as a journalist.

Or think Mata Hari –

 

Her Iraq coverage didn't just depend on Chalabi. It also relied heavily on his patrons in the Pentagon. Some of these sources, like Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, would occasionally talk to her on the record. She relied especially heavily on the Office of Special Plans, an intelligence unit established beneath Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith. The office was charged with uncovering evidence of Al Qaeda links to Saddam Hussein that the CIA might have missed. In particular, Miller is said to have depended on a controversial neocon in Feith's office named Michael Maloof. At one point, in December 2001, Maloof's security clearance was revoked. In April, Risen reported in the Times, "Several intelligence professionals say he came under scrutiny because of suspicions that he had leaked classified information in the past to the news media, a charge that Mr. Maloof denies." While Miller might not have intended to march in lockstep with these hawks, she was caught up in an almost irresistible cycle. Because she kept printing the neocon party line, the neocons kept coming to her with huge stories and great quotes, constantly expanding her access.

… In the early eighties, she shared a Georgetown house with her boyfriend, Wisconsin congressman Les Aspin - a rising star in the Democratic Party, who went on to become Bill Clinton's first secretary of Defense. Aspin, many noted, had appeared a dozen times in Miller's pieces, offering sage words about national security. Certain catty colleagues liked to read these stories aloud.


Each time the phrase "Aspin said" appeared, a reporter would add, "rolling over in bed." When Reagan nominated Richard Burt to be assistant secretary of State for European affairs, Jesse Helms and other right-wingers bludgeoned him for their relationship. "It would help [your chances for confirmation]," Orrin Hatch delicately wrote to Burt, "if you could lay to rest the rumors about Judith Miller's articles on arms control appearing so soon after your own meetings with her."

 

Oh my! But she got the stories.

And you might want to read what happened when she was embedded in this current war, with a team searching for WMD.

The whole thing is a profile of "journalist as diva" and of an organization that just hated that, and needed her to be just that - until now.

So what are reporters supposed to do?

 

Get the story, of course.

Those who want more - some assessment of what you're told, some attempt at finding out whether it's true, or even likely, sourcing things, fact-checking, evaluation - are now on Miller's case.

There's change in the air.































 
 
 
 

Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
 
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