Judith Miller (who apparently calls all the shots at the Times) has published -- finally! -- her account of the whole Plame imbroglio. It accompanies the 5,800-word takeout that is, I guess, the Times' definitive account of what happened.
My four-word reaction? Too little, too late. The Times has seriously damaged its credibility over the past few months with its coverage (or scandalous lack thereof) of its own and Miller's role in this story. Pulling punches doesn't make for quality journalism. Neither does an out-of-control reporter.
"We have everything to be proud of and nothing to apologize for," Ms. Miller said in an interview Friday.
Au contraire, Judy.
NYU J-school professor Jay Rosen has been en fuego with this story lately, keeping on top of it and analyzing developments. I agree with him that the takeout was nicely written and "superbly edited", not least in the juxtaposition of facts in key grafs:
Claudia Payne, a Times editor and a close friend of Ms. Miller, said that once Ms. Miller realized that her jail term could be extended, "it changed things a great deal. She said, 'I don't want to spend my life in here.' "
Ms. Payne added, "Her paramount concern was how her actions would be viewed by her colleagues."
On Sept. 29, Ms. Miller was released from jail and whisked by Mr. Sulzberger and Mr. Keller to the Ritz-Carlton Georgetown for a massage, a manicure, a martini and a steak dinner. The next morning, she testified before the grand jury for three hours. Afterward, Ms. Miller declared that her ordeal was a victory for journalists and the public.
And, most devastatingly, at the very end of the story:
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 its questions.
"It's too early to judge it, and it's probably for other people to judge," said Mr. Keller, the executive editor. "I hope that people will remember that this institution stood behind a reporter, and the principle, when it wasn't easy to do that, or popular to do that."
In Rosen's preliminary assessment of the Times stories, this stood out:
Miller cannot recall where the name at the center of the case came from? Wowzer. Sure to be the center of controversy over the next week. Claiming memory loss about the most important fact in the story is weak. Very.
Miller actually subtracts from public knowledge in this part, a feat. She introduces into the narrative a new “source” who must have been around to plant the name on her, and then promptly tells us she cannot remember anything about him. So we know less if we believe her.
And the most striking part, I think, is that Miller violated every newsroom code by not answering her fellow reporters' questions. I also think it's very telling that the Times' former Washington bureau chief contradicts Miller regarding Miller's assertion (to a nameless editor--whom Miller would not identify!) that the Times should do a story on Plame. More from Jay Rosen:
And how’s this for corporate candor? The Washington Post reported today: “Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis said yesterday that Miller is now cooperating with fellow reporters on the story.” Odd definition of cooperating. This, I think, is what will finally sever Judy Miller from the Times: Ms. Miller generally would not discuss… Not forgivable in the newsroom’s moral code. They’re trying to finally tell the truth and get it right— and you won’t help? (Editor & Publisher’s Greg Mitchell agrees and calls for Miller to be fired.)
Ms. Miller’s article on the hunt for missing weapons was published on July 20, 2003. It acknowledged that the hunt could turn out to be fruitless but focused largely on the obstacles the searchers faced.
Neither that article nor any in the following months by Ms. Miller discussed Mr. Wilson or his wife.
It is not clear why. Ms. Miller said in an interview that she “made a strong recommendation to my editor” that a story be pursued. “I was told no,” she said. She would not identify the editor.
Ms. Abramson, the Washington bureau chief at the time, said Ms. Miller never made any such recommendation.
So she won’t even identify the editor, and Jill Abramson says no way, it never happened? Second wowzer.
Indeed. From Editor & Publisher's Greg Mitchell, who calls for Miller's firing, as referenced above:
As the newspaper’s devastating account of her Plame games -- and her own first-person sidebar -- make clear, she should be promptly dismissed for crimes against journalism, and her own newspaper. And Bill Keller, executive editor, who let her get away with it, owes readers, at the minimum, an apology instead of merely hailing his paper’s long-delayed analysis and saying that readers can make of it what they will.
He should also apologize to all the “armchair critics” and “vultures” he denounced this week for spreading unfounded stories and “myths” about what Miller and the newspaper had been up to. If anything, this sad and outrageous story is worse than most expected. . .
Saturday's Times article, without calling for Miller’s dismissal, or Keller’s apology, made the case for both actions in this pithy, frank, and brutal assessment: "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 its questions."
It followed that paragraph with Keller's view: "It's too early to judge."
Like Keller says, make of it what you will. My view: Miller did far more damage to her newspaper than did Jayson Blair, and that’s not even counting her WMD reporting, which hurt and embarrassed the paper in other ways.
The Times should let Miller, like Blair, go off to write a book, with no return ticket. We all know how well that worked out for Blair.
Miller should be fired if for nothing more than this: After her paper promised a full accounting, and her full cooperation, in its probe, it reported Saturday, “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.”
As for Keller’s apology (or more), consider just one of a dozen humbling sentences from the Times story: “Interviews show that the paper’s leadership, 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.” . . .
This is the woman Bill Keller and Arthur Sulzberger decided to make a First Amendment martyr, tainting their newspaper’s reputation like never before. As their paper’s article reveals, neither asked Miller detailed questions about her conversations with Libby or examined her notes. Keller "declined to tell his own reporters" that Libby was Miller's source, Saturday's article dryly complains. The report also makes clear that he ordered ideas for articles related to the case killed. Most humiliating, the Times had a story about Miller's release from jail ready at 2 p.m. that day -- and it wasn't published until the end of the day, allowing other newspapers (even tiny E&P) to get the scoop.
My recollection, I told him, was that Mr. Libby wanted to modify our prior understanding that I would attribute information from him to a "senior administration official." When the subject turned to Mr. Wilson, Mr. Libby requested that he be identified only as a "former Hill staffer." I agreed to the new ground rules because I knew that Mr. Libby had once worked on Capitol Hill.
Did Mr. Libby explain this request? Mr. Fitzgerald asked. No, I don't recall, I replied. But I said I assumed Mr. Libby did not want the White House to be seen as attacking Mr. Wilson.
I thought about writing a post trying to give some background about whether this is a normal or accepted practice among reporters.
The first part of an answer is to say, no, I would never agree to that sort of sourcing or those sorts of ground rules. And I can't imagine that many other journalists would either. But I think the more revealing detail is that I do not think I've ever even been asked.
I'm certainly not what you'd call a veteran reporter. But I've been doing this for a living for about eight years. And just off the top of my head, thinking it over this evening, I can't come up with a memory of a situation in which a source has asked me to identify them in this way. And by 'this way' I mean in a fashion that is technically accurately but intentionally and willfully misleading.
What happens very often is that you get in wrestling matches with sources over specificity -- with the reporter always wanting more detail and the source usually wanting to keep things as vague as possible.
Occasionally you will end up with formulations that amount to little more than 'said a human being in Washington who was knowledgeable about this subject.'
That's never a satisfactory solution; but occasionally it's unavoidable. And behind it is almost always -- from my experience at least -- a frustrated calculus the reporter has made that the information is illuminating and revealing enough of the truth of the story to justify not being able to give your readers a very clear idea just where you got it. . .
[T]his is probably already more information than most folks want. But in this case it certainly seems as though the tacit bargain between Miller and Libby was that Libby would provide Miller with information in exchange for her assistance in deceiving her readers. And that violates the rule or principle that amounts to the Occam's Razor of journalistic ethics -- fundamental honesty with your readers.
Miller's actions are inexcusable, and the Times, a great newspaper, is guilty of absolutely shameful conduct, shoddy journalism, and incredibly poor judgment. Both Miller and Keller should be fired.