The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Sunday, March 28, 2004

Judith Miller and WMD: Okrent's answer from the top

New York Times ombud Daniel Okrent's pseudo-blog, whilst welcome for its substance, imposes a certain discipline on the unwary blogger. Entirely unfair to characterise it as a means getting stuff into the public domain and making the smallest wave possible in the process.

However - I had managed not take cognizance of the appearance of a piece (March 25 1607 ET) on the Miller-WMD saga in scribing my last effort on the subject (March 26 0010 ET).

Okrent has not broken his self-denying ordinance about pre-arrival events. But he introduces a quote from Executive Editor Bill Keller on the subject.

Very bizarre. Keller, as boss, naturally has the run of the paper to comment on whatever he likes. A cursory check with Mr Google suggests that, as yet, he has not commented on the Miller/WMD question. Is the appearance of his comments on Okrent's turf meant to demonstrate that Okrent has managed some kind of coup?

Or - remembering the importance of location in the paper (A17 is Siberia) as an index of the value placed on it by the paper's editors - perhaps putting the statement in the Okrent blog takes the edge off it [1].

Okrent's explanation:
As I do not mean to suggest in any way that I am not interested in readers' concerns about the paper...

And we would think that, why?

As for the text - Keller makes the same not on my watch point as Okrent. And then says
I did not see a prima facie case for recanting or repudiating the stories. The brief against the coverage was that it was insufficiently skeptical, but that is an easier claim to make in hindsight than in context. (By context I mean such things as, what others were writing at the time, what role editors played in handling and presenting the stories, how credible the sources were, etc.)

One might at first wonder whether he quite understands the meaning of prima facie.

What I think he's saying is that Miller is the girl with her finger in the dyke (as it were): he doesn't think Miller's errors differ much in kind, if not in degree, from those made by the rest of her colleagues on the issue. So if the Times admits even that her WMD stuff deserves a second look, he's also admitting that the whole of Times coverage is suspect.

(The substantive point - that no journos and editors realised at the time that the WMD coverage was screwed is surely wrong. The folks at Knight Ridder - as told in Michael Massing's piece - had latched onto the dissent within the USIC on the extent of the Iraqi threat. But KR are infra dig, Not Our Sort, Dear - so no one took much notice.)

Then, based on this (false) premise, Keller says
opening a docket and litigating the claims against the coverage was likely to consume more of my attention than I was willing to invest.

The Ninth Beatitude applies here - I don't think anyone thought a Jayson Blair/Jack Kelley-style review of the matter was in prospect this side of the Last Trump.

As for the future, clearly Miller starts with a large credit balance at the Keller Bank:
My experience of that she is a smart, well-sourced, industrious and fearless reporter with a keen instinct for news, and an appetite for dauntingly hard subjects...

And Keller has his explanation ready for chi-iking from other pros:
Like many aggressive reporters, particularly reporters who deal with contentious subjects, she has sometimes stepped on toes, but that is hardly grounds for rebuke.

Which, being translated, is: Miller's critics are a bunch of hacks either themselves sore at being scooped, or getting their stuff from such scoopees.

Now, Keller isn't there as some kind of impartial umpire: it's his job to defend his people, whatever the merits of the complaints against them, so long as they can be defended, and cut them loose when they start risking the safety of the rest.

And, whatever else may lie behind the timing and placement of Keller's words, Okrent has done us a service in letting us know from the horse's mouth where we stand.

  1. The delightful phrase in French is mettre des bémols à whatever it is - why adding flats (in the musical key sense) should have got this meaning, I know not.


Relevant or no, one should perhaps add that Bill Keller was an enthusiastic member of the War Party.

For instance, he scribed a piece on June 14 2003 [1] reiterating his support for the invasion, but commenting scathingly on the intelligence operation:
What the Bush administration did was gild the lily -- disseminating information that ranged from selective to preposterous.
And he mentions the African uranium, aluminum tubes and Saddam/Al Qaida sagas.

Not to revisit the jury questions in the Miller case, but - didn't she write about some of that stuff?

Might as well quit it: we're not going to get any change out of Keller on Miller.

A regular reading of Brer Romenesko suggests that plagiarism is the surest charge to level if one is looking to winkle out a hack. But it's not one I think I've read levelled at Miller.

Of course, regurgitating stuff spoon-fed by USG sources is not viewed as plagiarism. Even if she is repeating someone else's stuff without namechecking them.

  1. Behind the pay-wall; this, I fancy, is it, though.


In relation to Bill Keller's hindsight point:

Picking up again with Susan Moeller's study - Ctrl + F the page - I find on page 45a an extract from Dana Milbank's WaPo article from October 22 2002 (on the WaPo site!) For Bush, Facts Are Malleable: Presidential Tradition Of Embroidering Key Assertions Continues.

Milbank cites three statements of Bush's, and says that each was
dubious, if not wrong
Amongst the three is this:
Last month, asked if there were new and conclusive evidence of Hussein's nuclear weapons capabilities, Bush cited a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency saying the Iraqis were "six months away from developing a weapon."

Milbank says
there was no such report by the IAEA

Later in the piece, he says the White House afterwards said the source was not an IAEA report but US intelligence.

Milbank's piece was directed at Bush stretchers generally, not just Iraq-related ones. But it does suggest that, even at the prestige end of the media street, folks were calling attention to the Emperor's lack of apparel.

Regular readers will want to know where the Milbank piece ran. The generosity of the Post (no need to scrabble around for copies on Usenet!) allows one to know the answer: A1, no less! A memo to the White House.

And, thanks to Ken Auletta's New Yorker piece from January 2004, we know it went down like the showing of The Passion at a barmitzvah:
According to Maralee Schwartz, the Post’s national political editor, Fleischer, Hughes, and Rove each complained to her about him, and suggested that he might be the wrong person for the job.

Moeller cites a couple of other pieces from October 2002 on White House stretchers: a NY Times piece (reprint) by Steven Lee Meyers on Chechnyan terror (blink and you'll miss it!):
As Mr. Bush has done repeatedly, Mr. Putin raised the specter of a terrorist attack using nuclear, chemical or biological weapons...

And a Michael Kinsley WaPo op-ed (Slate reprint):
the dissembling is aimed at the American citizenry...

What would be helpful - to avoid the hindsight of which Brer Keller was so scornful - is some kind of timeline for us to be able to gauge the state of the art on media criticism of Iraqi WMD intelligence.

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