Prosecutors will tell you that they don’t get to choose the victims they represent. Sometimes those victims come with baggage that makes them appear unsympathetic. Yet prosecutors will work the case because they’re charged with prosecuting crimes, not representing palatable victims.
Such is the case of former New York Times reporter Judith Miller. She spent 85 days in jail to defend the principle of protecting confidential sources in the course of doing her job. It was an important stand given the federal prosecutors’ propensity to issue subpoenas to reporters to share what they know about federal wrongdoing.
The leadership of the Society of Professional Journalists believed that her stand should be recognized with a First Amendment Award. Despite criticism from both inside and outside the Society, SPJ honored her at its national convention in Las Vegas in October.
Miller’s responses to prepared questions lobbed at her not by SPJ attendees but by a trusted legal colleague during a panel discussion exposed Miller to be a flawed journalist, who looked more like an exposed nerve ending than the anti-Christ of reportage.
This perceived vulnerability fails to mitigate the fact that she has engaged in some questionable journalistic behavior that smacks of high-powered favoritism on the one extreme and sheer laziness on the other, as evidenced by her over-reliance on confidential sources and willingness to capitulate to misleading attribution.
The lesson, particularly for the young members of SPJ, is to beware of the excesses that can bring a superstar reporter to his or her knees. And beware the newsroom that breeds such a poisonous culture.
While there are a number of troubling aspects to this story, they don’t all fall at the feet of Judith Miller. Behind every reporter is a cadre of editors who assign and edit stories before publishing.
Why didn’t her editors more carefully supervise her? It defies logic that editors at The New York Times would allow any reporter, particularly one covering national security, to “run amok.”
But run amok Miller did, and no one seemed to be willing to stop her. That has left the industry wondering, “Why wasn’t she stopped?” This question will continue to dog and damage our industry until the Times answers.
The buck stops with the editor who must demand transparency in sourcing in order to provide readers with critical information.
Miller asserted that her case is being confused with the combustible issue of why we went to war in Iraq, arguably the fundamental foreign policy issue of our time.
Her defense of the inaccurate reporting on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction goes up like Harriet Miers’ nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. “My sources were wrong, and so my reporting was wrong,” she told the Vegas crowd.
It was a preposterous statement to make to a roomful of journalists and serves to make her look like nothing more than a shill for her sources.
There were plenty who did question the Bush Administration’s assertions on WMD, as is evidenced by the number of links to those original stories out on the blogosphere.
Miller may be able to pass that don’t-blame-the-messenger story on to the general public, but journalists preach and practice that you verify information provided by your sources before you go to print.
Miller knows better, and so does the Times.
There’s a reason journalists push for information — so that we get the story right. In the absence of answers, we’re left to question how the Times operates.
Did Miller have any kind of security clearance, and if so what were the conditions?
Did her editors know and agree to those conditions?
Was she too personally involved in her stories about WMD?
Did she think her sources were talking to her or to the Times?
Has the Times articulated a clear policy on the ownership of reporters’ notes?
Didn’t Miller have an obligation to turn over what she knew to the reporter who replaced her on the national security beat?
In the absence of answers, The Gray Lady looks more like a charwoman covered in the soot of the Miller debacle than the stately newspaper of record.
Wendy A. Hoke, a freelance writer based in Cleveland, interviewed Judith Miller for Quill Magazine during the 2005 SPJ Convention and National Journalism Conference.