The New York Times Finally Comes Clean -- Mostly
For the nation's media critics, it's like Christmas in October: The New York Times has finally published its much-promised, exhaustive account of reporter Judith Miller's role in the Valerie Plame case and the circumstances behind Miller's decision to spend 85 days in jail rather than reveal her sources to prosecutors.
And as many of us expected, it is a near-6,000-word story that leaves Miller looking less like a First Amendment hero and more like an out-of-control creature of official Washington with a habit of geting too close to government sources. Miller is shown in full control of a legal strategy which cost her newspaper millions and decisively eliminated journalists' right to withhold sources from federal prosecutors in one of the nation's most important courts.
Worse, the Times account doesn't answer the big question; more on that later.
To its credit, when the Gray Lady finally did step up, she did so without fear or favor. Editor Bill Keller comes off as badly as Howell Raines did during the Jayson Blair scandal, shown declining to ask Miller detailed questions about her conversations with vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby when prosecutors subpoeanaed her in late 2004. Indeed, Keller didn't tell his own reporters who Miller's source was, and when those reporters did learn his identity, the newspaper didn't publish the name until Miller decided to testify before the grand jury last month and was released from jail. Sunday's story also says Keller "did not entirely step aside" from supervising reporters' work on the scandal, while also participating in strategy sessions on Miller's defense.
Other Plame-related stories, including a piece developed by its Washington bureau on the role of Vice President Dick Cheney's aides in the leak case, were not published by the Times. The newspaper had a story on Miller's release from jail ready at 2 p.m. that day, but didn't publish it on their Web site until after the Philadelphia Inquirer did. And the newspaper's Washington bureau chief admitted Keller stifled coverage of the leak case for fear of antagonizing prosecutors or exposing Miller's source while she was in jail.
The Times emerges as an institution at war with itself, tied in knots by managers seeking to protect a strong-willed reporter on one end, and cover an investigation which has consumed much of Washington for two years on the other. The issue has grown so big, even NBC's The West Wing has a similar storyline.
The paper notes Keller waited nearly a year to issue an editor's note criticizing some of the paper's too-credulous coverage on weapons of mass destruction leading to the Iraq War (often led by Miller), though he had removed Miller from reporting on Iraq and weapons issues within weeks of taking over as executive editor.
Despite assurances from Times executives that Miller would cooperate in their attempt to excavate this sad affair, the Times own story noted "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."
And the bad news for Miller here is massive. She says she pressed to write a story on Plame and was told no; the Washington bureau chief at the time said it didn't happen. She admits in her own story about her testimony, agreeing to describe Libby anonymously as a former Capitol Hill staffer in a story to disguise where he actually worked. And when asked by an editor in 2003 whether a White House official told her of Plame's identity, she said no, despite now admitting three separate meetings with Libby in which Plame came up.
Miller also has trouble with her memory. She can't remember why she wrote Valerie Flame in one notebook page and Victoria Wilson on another. She also can't remember who else she discussed the Plame issue with, though she knows she did speak with other people. Experienced reporters know that it isn't unusual to write things in your notebook and not recall their origin weeks, months or years later; still, the lack of specifics given th idea that she had hoped to write a story, is troubling.
Some pundits have already called for Miller's firing and an apology from Keller.
And more questions remain. Who did tell her Valerie Plame's name, and why can't Miller remember who it was (isn't that like Bob Woodward not remembering who Deep Throat is?)
Why won't Miller talk fully about her grand jury testimony or dealing with editors, even with reporters from her own paper? How close was she to Libby, and did that distort her journalism or her choices in refusing to testify? Was she untruthful with her editors, and if so, what will the Times do about it? And why is the Society of Professional Journalists giving her its First Amendment Award with so many unanswered questions left hanging?
Ironically, the public's last hope for full disclosure may be whatever report prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald finally releases. That we have come to this in a scandal involving so many high-level Washington journalists, remains a troubling development.
Those of us who care about all journalists' crediblity are just worried that the nation's Paper of Record has given readers like yourself another reason to distrust us.
What do you think?