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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Tuesday, June 01, 2004

New York-Judith Miller: further thoughts

[Following up the piece earlier today on Franklin Foer's New York article. Ombud Daniel Okrent's comments discussed on May 30.]

Now - to judge by Foer's account - Miller is a powerful, not to say colourful, personality, who, one feels, would have been at home in the gaudy, muckraking era of Nellie Bly and Ida Tarbell. And that, so it seems, her co-workers to a man have scarcely a good word to say for her is scarcely surprising. In a cut-throat business, those with severed jugulars are unlikely to be fulsome about she who wields the razor.

And making a habit of fucking upwardly mobile pols - or, at least, getting the reputation for doing so - can have drawn little admiration from colleagues.

However - the way to the columns of the Times is supposed to be guarded by grown-ups, standing above the newsroom fray, and exercising independent judgement as to what they allow to go out in the Gray Lady's name.

What does Foer say to that?

The story is that Miller was with Roosevelt before Chicago on the question of WMD. On page 1 [1], we get Miller back in the early eighties [2] chatting WMD to her boyfriend of the time. Over the years, she picks up interests in the Middle East and terrorism. By the late nineties, she's got a piece saying
a pilotless plane spraying 200 pounds of anthrax near a large city might kill up to a million people

Just like on The A-Team, the plan was coming together.

It only required Al Qaeda to do their stuff on 9/11, and Miller was in business. She couldn't exactly corner the market, but she was well-placed to make an impression.

Enter Howell Raines, Bill Keller's predecessor as Executive Editor. Or so Foer says:
According to a friend of Raines's, as well as one of Miller's colleagues at the paper, the editor pulled her aside after the attacks. "Go win a Pulitzer," he told her.

Just a tad too ben trovato, perhaps. But, even without the cheesy line, one suspects that the message to Miller coming down from on high at W43rd Street was precisely that.

Her newsroom crimes are apparently mostly pinching sources, stories and bylines, but not exclusively. On page 3, Foer recounts
One incident that still rankles happened last April, when Miller co-bylined a story with Douglas Jehl on the WMD search that included a quote from Amy Smithson, an analyst formerly at the Henry L. Stimson Center. A day after it appeared, the Times learned that the quote was deeply problematic. To begin with, it had been supplied to Miller in an e-mail that began, "Briefly and on background" - a condition that Miller had flatly broken by naming her source. Miller committed a further offense by paraphrasing the quote and distorting Smithson's analysis. One person who viewed the e-mail says that it attributed views to Smithson that she clearly didn't hold. An embarrassing correction ensued. And while the offense had been entirely Miller's, there was nothing in the correction indicating Jehl's innocence.

My recollection is that Jehl has been one of those at the Times latterly engaged in clearing up the paper's WMD mess.

What about the chain of command? Apparently, her chair at the Washington Bureau was removed in January 2004. But this was an unusual and rather tardy token of resistance to a reporter who seems to have played the editorial function like a violin.

On page 4, Foer quotes the Editor's Note -
Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper.
- and continues:
This was a bit too sweeping. While there were no heroes within the Times, there were editors who raised serious and consistent doubts about Miller's reportage. During the run-up to the war, investigations editor Doug Frantz and foreign editor Roger Cohen went to managing editor Gerald Boyd on several occasions with concerns about Miller's overreliance on Chalabi and his Pentagon champions, especially Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith. For instance, Frantz rejected a proposal for a story in which Pentagon officials claimed to have identified between 400 and 1,000 WMD sites, without providing much backup evidence to justify their claims. "At the time, people knew her reporting was suspect and they said so," one Timesman told me. But Raines and Boyd continually reaffirmed management's faith in her by putting her stories on page 1.

Presumably, Frantz and Cohen gag reflex got used to regular pride-swallowing. While it would be childish to have expected a futile gesture [3] from guys at this level, it's an indication of the putrefaction of the Times management structure reached under Raines - and naturally causes one to enquire whether, and, if so, how, things have changed for the better under Keller.

Foer says (page 5) that Raines was peeved at being scooped by the Washington Post's Bob Woodward's - what Foer calls - meaty reporting on security matters.

(He also suggests Raines was frit about accusations of bias from the Weekly Standard - I knew things were bad, but...)

So Miller was unmuzzled and let off the leash:
Raines had crafted Judy's assignment so that it became extremely easy for her to circumvent the desks. According to one of her editors, she worked stories for investigative one day, foreign the next, and the Washington bureau the day after. It was never clear who controlled or edited her. When one desk stymied her, she'd simply hustle over to another and pitch her story there. It was an editorial vacuum worsened by the absence of a top editor on the investigative unit, her nominal home. Between Doug Frantz's departure for the Los Angeles Times in March 2003 and Matthew Purdy's arrival in January 2004, Miller had almost no high-level supervision from editors with investigative experience.

By Foer, Raines clearly had no intention of letting the facts get in the way of Miller's Pulitzer: what was good enough for Walter Duranty...

And Miller's cover at the paper went higher than Executive Editor, it seems:
When Miller joined the Times in the late seventies, she arrived in the Washington bureau at about the same time as Arthur Sulzberger Jr. - a recent college graduate getting hands-on experience in the shop floor of the family business. The D.C. office had only about half a dozen reporters under the age of 35, including Sulzberger, Miller, Steve Rattner, and Phil Taubman. They clung to one another...Fairly or unfairly, there's a sense that Miller has protection at the absolute top - and that fear reportedly deters some editors from challenging her.

There's no suggestion that Miller had at any time opened her legs to the current publisher of the paper - and Foer downplays the connection as an explanation for Times foot-dragging on admitting its errors. (He prefers the explanation that Keller wanted to move on post-Jayson Blair and cut the recriminations.)

However - to put it mildly - the Miller-Sulzberger relationship is yet another thing one doesn't find mentioned on the back of the box.

In his final graf, Foer lets the NYT management off the hook:
But making the process more transparent is easier than reforming the profession itself, which inevitably relies on people. People like Miller, with her outsize journalistic temperament of ambition, obsession, and competitive fervor, relying on people like Ahmad Chalabi, with his smooth, affable exterior retailing false information for his own motives, for the benefit of people reading a newspaper, trying to get at the truth of what's what.

Miller as femme fatale - a siren luring honest newspaper editors helpless to their doom, Eve tempting Adam with her juicy fruit - it's a story arc with more whiskers that Wonkette's dog.

And about as worthy of credibility. With Miller's WMD stories, Raines seems to have operated something close to a pyramid scheme: with no actual evidence available, each story would seem to corroborate its predecessor, on the fallacious, but desperately intuitive, basis of no smoke without fire. Eventually, something close to the truth would be known: Raines - Micawber-like - hoped that something would turn up to cover the paper's back.

If not, wot larks!

Should we be surprised at such gross irresponsibility?

  1. The piece is on five pages, with no printer option. Damn!

  2. How old is Miller? The piece puts her in grad school in 1971: she must be mid-50s now, surely.

  3. The Beyond the Fringe sketch (Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller) is here.

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