After weeks of laser attacks by mainstream media and the blogosphere, embattled former New York Times reporter Judith Miller braved her second public appearance since being released from jail. She spoke out in favor of a federal shield law at the 2005 SPJ Convention and National Journalism Conference in Las Vegas.
During an exclusive interview with Quill following her Oct. 18 speech, Miller said she has no regrets about going to jail to protect a source. But the time since she’s been released has been “as, if not more, stressful” than spending 85 days in jail.
Her motives and methods have been called into question, and her very presence at the convention made her and SPJ a lightning rod for publicity, even capturing the lead item in the local gossip column.
“Event organizers confirmed they were adding security after Internet bloggers urged people to protest (Miller’s) appearance at the Aladdin-based convention, where she is receiving the First Amendment Award from the SPJ for going to jail to protect a source,” wrote Norm Clarke, of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, himself a keynote speaker at the convention.
But in her speech to a ballroom full of journalists and in the private interview that followed, she made it clear that she valued strongly the First Amendment Award. Before sitting down to talk about her case, she asked that the award be sent directly to her home to reside next to her Pulitzer Prize.
“Without whining, it has not been easy,” she said, particularly of being released after 85 days in the Alexandria Detention Center.
“(The press reaction) strikes me as being a little unfair to the Times, to me and to journalism. This has been very hard on my family,” she said.
So how does she maintain perspective in the face of such attacks?
“You remember that you did what you did for principle. You remember it again and again. You remember it when you read horrific gossip about yourself, your family and your colleagues and your friends. You remember that it’s not about you or your institution. You remember that what you do as a journalist is to inform the public, and you’re going to take some hits. That’s life,” she said.
Miller indicated she is eager to turn the spotlight away from her and onto the larger issue of enacting a federal shield law. The proposed law would protect journalists from being compelled to reveal sources except in the extreme cases of imminent national security threats. Miller testified on behalf of the law before the Senate Judiciary Committee the day after her speech to SPJ.
“I’m here because I hope you will agree that an uncoerced, uncoerceable press, though at times irritating, is vital to the perpetuation of freedom and democracy we so often take for granted,” she said in her testimony, which was published on the Senate Web site.
Before she made that appearance, an unusual move for a Times reporter, Miller openly worried about how the media reaction to her decision to testify before the federal grand jury after getting a personal and voluntary waiver from her source, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, would affect the 20 other journalists facing federal subpoenas to testify.
“I do worry about the impact on people not now protected by a shield law who may soon have to wrestle with the decisions that I did. Because if you know you’re going to spend 85 days in jail and still come out and be savagely attacked by some who claim to be journalists, some people may not want to take the risks or make the stand. I don’t blame them,” she said.
Journalists don’t get to choose when is a good time to make a stand on principle, Miller said. Admittedly, her case was not perfect, and the confusion and unanswered questions have infuriated some of her Times colleagues, who have since lashed out publicly.
For now she is planning to take some time to process the ordeal.
“I want to apologize to my family and friends. I made the stand on principle, and I just expected them to stand with me. They did, and it’s been very hard on them. I owe them time and attention right now,” she said.
She is hopeful that her case provides an opportunity to galvanize support for the passage of a federal shield law.
But there are questions that remain unanswered, and for the time being Miller and The New York Times will remain a journalistic target.
Asked if she felt she was used by her source, regardless of never having written a story identifying Valerie Plame as a CIA operative, Miller said, “journalism is all about being used and using people.
“It’s about getting information out. Of course people want to spin. It is not a headline that the White House attempts to spin reporters. We see it every day. The danger of my case is we could be seeing the criminalization of political discourse in America,” she said.
And if the U.S. Department of Justice begins to move against people who talk to reporters, the result is a chilling affect on that discourse and, ultimately, the inability to serve the public well.
Miller stopped talking for a moment and then explained why she thinks she has become such a magnet for controversy.
“My case has been confused with the broader debate over the war in Iraq and over the Bush Administration,” she said. “Some people are so against the war and against this administration for bringing us into this war, that they care more about “punishing” the officials who led us into this war than about protecting the First Amendment.”
She denied being a funnel for the Bush Administration’s policies. “I would feel the same way about protecting a source in the Bush Administration or the Clinton Administration or any administration as long as he or she was a good-faith source,” she said.
Miller used the term “good-faith source” in her own account that ran in the Oct. 16 edition of The New York Times. During her speech, she defined a good-faith source as a person who relays what she believes to be an accurate version of events.
“Because the furor over my WMD reporting has been confused with an important principle at stake, the principle (of protecting confidential sources) is at risk,” she said.
“People can be angry at me, but I did not take this country to war. President Bush took this country to war. I will stand up for the principle that enables other reporters and me, hopefully, to bring Americans the information that next time may prevent a war. We can’t do that if people are so enraged that they are willing to sacrifice the First Amendment for a partisan goal,” she said.
Miller is hopeful that when people calm down they will begin to see what’s at stake.
She offered some lessons learned that she wanted to share with other journalists, particularly students.
“Learn a lot more about the law and your legal obligations as a journalist. I hadn’t paid very close attention, and I’m very sorry I didn’t. When you’re involved in sensitive national security reporting, it’s increasingly clear that we need to know more about how to protect ourselves,” she said.
And it’s not up to lawyers alone.
She also advised journalists to think hard about the reporter/source relationship.
“What do you do when a source lies to you? I know what I do. I cut him or her off. I confront them and tell them they actively mislead me,” she said, adding there’s a difference between a source being wrong and lying.
“Scooter Libby had been a good-faith source, and I had never found out that he had lied to me. I may find that out with the special prosecutor, but I did what I did to protect him because I believed him,” she said.
Her final advice was to think about your notes —- how long you keep them and how detailed they are.
“We like to think we will write a great journalistic memoir one day, which is why we keep our notes. But the risks, the danger to our sources may be so great, absent a shield law, that we no longer have that luxury. The world may have to limp along without our great memoirs,” she said, laughing.
Despite the beating she’s taken, Miller said she welcomed the blogosphere and felt it makes an enormous contribution. But her anger flared when the subject turned to the rumors about her case and her motives.
“Shame on the mainstream media if it fails to distinguish between gossip and news and if it carries gossip masquerading as news. That’s what happens all too often, and that’s what happened in this case, and yes, I’m angry,” she said.
“I welcome any blogger who subjects him or herself to the standards of mainstream media news –- get comment, try and be fair, distinguish editorial opinion from factually based reporting, and when you make a mistake, write a correction,” she said.
Miller wouldn’t speculate on whether or not there was any wrongdoing on the part of the Bush Administration in the leaking of Valerie Plame’s identity. But she sighed heavily when asked if this all comes to nothing.
“We will soon learn what the government believes. Whether or not it can prove its case is a separate matter,” she said.
Wendy A. Hoke is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.