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A Tale of Two Journalism Albatrosses



(Miller and Mapes: The M&Ms of journalism scandal)

The New York Times finally made official what many predicted weeks ago; that Judith Miller would not have another Times byline anytime soon.

Actually, that isn't exactly true. Miller, who spent more than two weeks negotiating her "retirement" from the newspaper, will have a letter published tomorrow in which she answers her many critics (actually, she doesn't answer them very well, but that letter and other rebuttals are contained on her web site, found here. The upshot: her former editor Jill Abramson, the team who assubled the 6,000-word analysis of her situation and many others have lied or distorted her explanations for her many transgressions. Riiight).

This critic can't help seeing a parallel between Miller and another journalistic pariah trying to redeem herself in the media this week, former CBS News producer Mary Mapes.

The two both have impressive career achievements (Miller was part of a team which won a Pulitzer in 2002 and has written four books; Mapes helped uncover the Abu Ghraib torture scandal in Iraq). Both are highly driven women with oddly close relationships to powerful men (Miller/Scooter Libby; Mapes/Dan Rather). Both seem to have been undone by excesses bred from the journalistic lattitude their achievements earned them.

And neither seem able to admit the true depths of their mistakes.

Mapes has been making the journalistic rounds this week -- with ABC News, the Washington Post and the Buffalo News, among other outlets -- flogging her take on the Memogate scandal to push her new book, Truth and Duty.

In such interviews, she seems to act as if merely denying the impact of her actions -- failing to fully vet the source of controversial memos regarding President Bush's National Guard service -- is enough.

"I don't think I committed bad journalism. I really don't," she told ABC reporter Brian Ross. Later, she noted, "I think the media's had more fun beating itself up in the last five years than it has asking hard questions of the administration or government officials, and I think that's wrong."

In other words, blame other reporters, blame a clueless public, blame CBS News and Viacom executives -- blame everyone but her.

Miller offers a similar lack of remorse in her comments about leaving the Times: "I have chosen to resign because over the last few months, I have become the news, something a New York Times reporter never wants to be," she says in a story posted today on the Times' Web site. In that piece, she also notes that even before going to jail, she had "become a lightning rod for public fury over the intelligence failures that helped lead our country to war." She said she regretted "that I was not permitted to pursue answers" to questions about those intelligence failures.

In other words, blame my editors, blame other reporters, blame a clueless public. Anyone, it seems, but her.

Unfortunately, the rest of journalism world must live with the consequences of their hubris. From Miller, we have recent court decisions undermining the ability of journalists to keep sources secret and flawed reportage in the country's most powerful newspaper which made the case for war in Iraq. Mapes helped conservatives attack the mainstream media for liberal bias, distracted the public from legitimate questions about Bush's service record on the eve of a presidential election and severely wounded the crediblity of CBS News as it was preparing for Rather's inevitable departure.

A friend of mine once diagnosed such insolence, calling it "a glorious lack of shame." Indeed, neither Mapes nor Miller seem willing or able to apologize for the damage they have done -- particularly, to those whose reputations were damaged by defending them -- invoking everything from corporate politics to sexism in a shameless attempt to avoid culpability.

There are some who have blamed Miller's and Mapes' missteps on laziness or shortcuts. I don't buy that for a moment. Both women were legendary workaholics known for going the extra mile to nail a story. But both also developed that peculiar tunnel vision which can be the downfall of so many investigative reporters, in which they "know" the truth of their reporting, regardless of whether their evidence proves it (fellow NYT investigative reporter, longtime Miller friend and former St. Pete Times reporter David Barstow sort of defended his pal at a talk in Utah here).

With a glitzy Web site for her book, a much-needed makeover and a slick agency handling her speaking engagements, expects to see much, much more of Mapes in the weeks to come (she's due on the O'Reilly Factor Thursday night). Ditto for Miller, who faced rumors of a book deal the minute she emerged from prison, has made a handful of public appearances to advocate a Federal Shield law for journalists and is scheduled to appear on Larry King Live Thursday night.

In a world of relentless, continuous media exposure, the impact of these journalistic outcasts will be felt for some time to come.

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:34pm]


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