Published on Thursday, October 2, 2003 by Editor and Publisher Online
Miller's Star Fades (Slightly) at 'NY Times'
by William E. Jackson, Jr.
On Sept. 29, a remarkable story appeared on the front page of The New York Times: "Agency Belittles Information Given by Iraqi Defectors; Pentagon Intelligence Review Says Debriefings Provided Little of Any Value." Far down in Douglas Jehl's report was this mea culpa: "The Iraqi National Congress [INC] had made some ... defectors available to ... The New York Times, which reported their allegations about ... the country's weapons programs."
This was a rather direct repudiation of numerous stories written by Judith Miller in the Times for over a year in which she relied upon the INC's Chalabi and defectors he provided for front-page exclusives on supposed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq. A second front-page Times story on Sept. 29, "New Criticism on Prewar Use of Intelligence," gave credit to The Washington Post for breaking the story about House Intelligence Committee complaints about the CIA.
Has the Gray Lady finally turned the corner and abandoned its dependence on the faulty WMD reporting of Miller in favor of more objective journalism? Alas, this may be as far as the Times will go in executing a critical review of Miller's reporting on the search for WMD over the past year. My communications with several Times employees, past and present, depict some powerful people within the paper as still being in denial. Their rationale is that Miller produces; and that she is uniquely well-connected. A reluctant admirer said: "What Miller does have is unlimited drive and energy for a story, and fabulous sources at the upper levels of government."
But Miller is not a neutral, nor an objective journalist. This can be acceptable, if you're a great reporter, "but she ain't, and that's why she's a propagandist," stated one old Times hand to me.
Never mind that what Miller has done over time seriously violates several Times' policies under their code of conduct for news and editorial departments. One has only to read the long editors' note on the Wen Ho Lee case, whose principal author was Bill Keller (now the executive editor). Keller cautioned against over-reliance on partisan sources; and laid out what further measures could have been taken, and were not.
More recently, Times' editors, while making sure that dissident views are note, have tended to ignore the implications as she goes right on with the WMD axe she is grinding.
One major rule that she consistently violates, when she is not sharing a byline, is that of "protecting the paper's neutrality." The editors know, of course, that she is an ideological neo-conservative, close to the Bush administration neo-cons, and thoroughly identified with them. She had called for the overthrow of Saddam's regime in non-Times publications and had also spoken out before the war in public speeches for which she was paid.
The Neocon Connection
She is known inside the paper to be very pro-Israel. She has had an extensive relationship with Daniel Pipes' Mideast Forum. Benador Associates lists her as a speaker. She has participated in conferences funded in part by departments of the Israeli government. Israeli security services funnel information through her, sources she occasionally cites.
In this context, how could Times' editors have set her up as the main watchdog on the trigger issue of WMD in a climate of pre-emptive war, knowing her proclivities?
Times' editors have maintained that Miller has given the paper many "exclusives," and still deny that many of them were seriously flawed. But when her work is examined systematically, it is frequently found to be simply wrong on the facts. She has quoted sources and identified specific weapons, many of which did not pan out. What becomes of the injunction of "our duty to our readers" under the Times code?
The "Madam Smallpox" article of last Dec. 3, for example, turned out to be one of the worst cases. As Dafna Linzer of the Associated Press has written, the alleged 1990 transfer of the virus to Iraq never took place. The idea of an especially virulent strain of smallpox, to which Miller gave so much credibility, has been generally discounted in the scientific community. Talk to scientists in the field, as I have done recently, and they will tell you that Miller is inaccurate and that she doesn't really understand the processes.
Her smallpox article was a piece of structured propaganda from start to finish, based on a single source making allegations to the CIA. As one Times source told me: "There were more red flags on this story than in Moscow on May Day." In fact, the Times over time has ignored multiple warnings from senior staff (and colleagues such as John Burns) about Miller's reporting.
From Background to Quote
In April, Miller interviewed an expert from the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington on background, then made up a quote and attributed it to the person, who she then named.
It infuriated colleagues and a senior editor, but it only merited a small editors' note on April 9: "An article on Saturday about the search by United States forces for chemical, biological and radiation weapons in Iraq included a comment attributed to Amy Smithson, a chemical weapons expert at the [Stimson] Center, a research institute in Washington. Ms. Smithson was depicted as suggesting that Bush administration officials might be less certain of finding such weapons now than before the war. She was quoted as saying that 'they may be trying to dampen expectations because they are worried they won't find anything significant.' In fact the comments were paraphrases of a remark Ms. Smithson made in an e-mail exchange for the Times's background information, on the condition that she would not be quoted by name. Attempts to reach her before publication were unsuccessful. Thus the comments should not have been treated as quotations or attributed to her."
This is actually what Miller did: the interview was conducted by e-mail, Miller added that "if I don't hear back from you I'll assume it's OK to use." Not hearing back, she used it. But the scientist didn't check her e-mail further that day.
Even though her reporting frequently does not meet published Times standards, there have yet to be any direct sanctions by the Times imposed on Miller. What has happened is that she has been put on a tighter leash, and her copy is carefully edited through the investigative desk by a new editor.
Following the appearance of a Sept. 25 jointly-authored story on the yet-to-be-released Iraqi Survey Group's WMD report, with Jehl listed before Miller, a Times correspondent currently serving abroad sent this message to me: "I hear that our friend has clipped wings these days."
There is a widespread perception among staff that her work has brought dishonor on the newspaper. The perception that she's protected at the top is widespread, and the reluctance of editors to penalize her adds to that, one of my sources said. Why did an assistant managing editor consistently defend her work of the last year? One of the deans of political writers at the Times tells me: "It makes no sense [but] the only thing I can think of for that clap-trap going into the paper without adequate reporting safeguards -- maybe sniffing the Raines?"
Once reporter Steve Engelberg (he is said to have spent a good portion of his time keeping Miller honest) left the three-dimensional investigative team of Engelberg, William Broad, and Miller, "she had a free ride under Howell and Boyd to do what she wanted. They protected her, particularly Boyd," according to one of my sources.
Miller's modus operandi is described by several Times sources as the following: She cultivates senior officials using the importance of the Times. The officials give her a story, she reports it uncritically (she may note opposing views, which she overrides with friendly sources without reporting out the discordant objections), and it appears prominently in the newspaper of record. Miller's happy, her editors are happy, her sources are happy.
Thus, she continues to prosper, the sources keep calling her back, she keeps getting published, and the editors like her because she "delivers." This system was summed up for me by a Timesman as: "a neat little eco-system of corrupt journalism."
This systemic problem at the Times was also described to me as "journalistic materialism." Miller has delivered "exclusives," even if in a prosecutorial, hyperventilated voice. And now no one wants to admit that those exclusives were in the main part wrong.
Jayson Blair was only a fluke deviation. Miller strikes right at the core of the regular functioning news machine.
William E. Jackson, Jr. was executive director of President Carter's General Advisory Committee on Arms Control. He writes about American foreign policy and hosts a TV political talk show in Charlotte, N.C.