NEW YORK - The Society of Professional Journalists’ decision to give its prestigious "First Amendment Award" to embattled New York Times reporter Judith Miller is a blow to freedom of expression. By rewarding a reporter who was apparently collaborating with and protecting a powerful official in an effort to punish the free speech of a government critic, the SPJ is undermining, not advancing, the principles of the First Amendment.
The award, coming two days after details of Miller’s involvement in the CIA leak story and her grand jury testimony were revealed by the New York Times (10/16/05), was defended by SPJ board member Mac McKerral, who told Editor & Publisher (10/17/05), “It’s not a lifetime achievement award.... I could understand people being upset if we were recognizing her work over a period of time, but this is an award for being willing to not reveal a source, willing to spend so many days in jail, and that is how we distinguish it…. Issues raised in the past couple of days really had no bearing on the award."
But why wouldn't new information about the case be relevant to a journalism group? For months, Miller claimed a journalistic privilege to protect Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis Libby. Miller would eventually tell the grand jury that Libby had identified Valerie Plame Wilson--the wife of White House critic and former Ambassador Joseph Wilson--as a CIA employee (New York Times, 10/16/05). Miller seemed to have little doubt about what motivated this disclosure: Asked why she agreed to Libby's request to identify him only as a “former Hill staffer,” Miller told the grand jury, “I assumed Mr. Libby did not want the White House to be seen as attacking Mr. Wilson.”
In other words, Miller understood that Libby was not a whistleblower but was someone out to punish a government critic. Not only was it unethical for her to agree to identify Libby in a misleading way, but promising him any kind of anonymity in this case violated the Times' rules against allowing unnamed sources to make partisan attacks.
SPJ's case rests on the belief that Miller was not wavering on the principle of not revealing a confidential source. But Miller's refusal to testify doesn't in the end seem as principled as either she or her paper originally claimed--which is the whole reason SPJ deemed her worthy of an award. Instead, the Times' October 16 report suggests that Miller was seeking a suitable waiver from Libby all along, and eventually based her decision not to testify in part on the feeling that she would harm Libby if she testified:
Once Ms. Miller was issued a subpoena in August 2004 to testify about her conversations with Mr. Libby, she and The Times vowed to fight it. Behind the scenes, however, her lawyer made inquiries to see if Mr. Libby would release her from their confidentiality agreement. Ms. Miller said she decided not to testify in part because she thought that Mr. Libby's lawyer might be signaling to keep her quiet unless she would exonerate his client.
The form that "signaling" took, according to Miller, was Libby's explaining that he had testified about their conversations in ways that in Miller's view were false. In other words, she refused to testify because she didn't want to expose her friend as a perjurer. Is this really a journalist that SPJ wants to hold up as an example to others?
There is much that is inexplicable and contradictory in Miller's account of her behavior. But even taking her story at face value, she is a reporter who violated the standards of professional journalism to work with a top White House official to get revenge on a government critic--and then declined to testify to protect him from the criminal consequences of his lies. This context has an obvious bearing on Miller’s qualifications for an award celebrating freedom of expression.