It would be a great understatement to say that The New York Times is in a difficult position when it comes to reporting on the case of Judith Miller, the paper's reporter who is currently in jail for refusing to identify sources in the Valerie Plame Wilson leak investigation. No one wants to see a journalist in jail—much less one who labors on behalf of the same news organization.
So it is understandable that the paper's owners want to back one of their employees, and uphold the larger principle of source confidentiality. The Times' editorial page, however, speaks for the entire paper and represents its most cherished values of truth and honesty. An editorial on the Miller case published on Tuesday failed to meet those standards. Appropriate compassion notwithstanding, the editors of the Times have failed to clarify the exact role of their controversial colleague, aware as they are of Miller's checkered professional record and her seeming disdain for standards the rest of the profession strives to uphold.
While defending its own, the paper also has a larger responsibility—both to its readers and to journalism—not to serve as a propaganda organ, obscuring key unresolved questions about Miller, her work and this particular case.
Two weeks ago, as Miller went off to serve a likely four-month sentence at a federal detention center, a profile of her by a Times media writer almost cartoonishly obfuscated her crucial role in peddling war with Iraq through her series of completely wrong reports fed to her by sources closely tied to the very same White House figures at the heart of the Plame affair.
Ms. Miller's polarizing personality… may also have led some to make her a symbol of the press's faulty reporting on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Ms. Miller was not alone in writing about the intelligence community's belief that Iraq possessed an impressive and frightening arsenal of such weapons.
Stenographer To Power?
Since then, the paper has done little to provide essential context to her mysterious role in the Plame affair, where, though she was one of several reporters of interest to prosecutors, she was the only one not to cooperate at all—and the only one, therefore, to go to jail. This, despite the perplexing fact that she never wrote a word about the matter, while others did.
Then came Tuesday's New York Times editorial. Headlined "A Jar of Red Herrings," it noted how complicated the affair had become, and sought to establish some basic principles.
"Not all confidential sources are Deep Throat, or heroic corporate whistle-blowers," it said, referring to the likely leakers whose names have surfaced, principally White House strategist Karl Rove and Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Dick Cheney's chief of staff. "Sometimes they are government officials who are hoping to spread information that will embarrass their political opponents or promote a particular agenda." What the editorial did not say was that, wittingly or not, Miller has built a career enabling such misinformation agendas and their propagators. Her recent reporting on scandals at the United Nations has focused almost exclusively on undermining the reputation of the independent-minded Secretary General Kofi Annan, and is entirely consistent with the objectives of a small circle in the highest reaches of the administration who want to reduce the world body's clout—once again, the same gang as in the Plame case.
The same pattern stretches back through much of her career, in which, among other things, she published numerous one-sided, anonymously sourced, alarmist reports in favor of a controversial anthrax vaccine backed by powerful insiders.
Given revelations during the days preceding the editorial, it seems increasingly likely that Miller herself might have been directly involved in an effort to reveal the identity of a covert operative, an effort that involved seeking to use that identity to put out false material designed to discredit a critic of the Bush administration.
Protected And Unaccountable
Despite growing doubts about her role, the paper asserts simply that "It doesn't matter whether we think a source is a good person or has good motivations. A reporter promises confidentiality, and the paper backs up the journalist because otherwise the public will not learn what it needs to know."
Yet, in fairness, how often has the public learned, through Miller's anonymous sources, what it "needs to know?" As for whether the source "is a good person" or "has good motivations," the New York Times' Washington Bureau has had a longstanding policy of voiding any confidentiality agreements when a source provides information that is false. This was recently affirmed by Bill Kovach, a former Times bureau chief and founding director of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, in an interview with Salon. In the case of the presumed "sources" with whom Miller interacted, they were involved in seeking to discredit a man who had just written a truthful New York Times opinion piece, and to expose the man's wife as a covert CIA operative. In what way did Miller's sources help the public "learn what it needs to know" in this particular instance?
The Time's Tuesday editorial asks us to trust the Times' internal procedures, to take its word for the validity of its position: "It's up to the reporter and editor to determine whether information given under a promise of confidentiality is reliable." But what editor has vetted Miller's source? Is the newspaper willing to at least identify that person and make plain the chain of knowledge and stewardship inside the institution? In the past, when I have inquired about who supervises Miller, I have been told by her colleagues that she generally has no direct supervisor, and moreover, that she frequently appeals, often with success, to those above her editors, to reverse their decisions. Her pipeline is said to extend all the way to the paper's publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., whose unwavering support for Ms. Miller over the years, irrespective of the situation, remains a mystery to many in that newsroom.
Smoke And Waivers
The NYT editorial notes that while Time Magazine reporter Matthew Cooper was able to provide testimony and avoid jail because of a "specific waiver" of confidentiality from Rove, Miller "says she has not received any such thing from her sources." It also says that "coerced waivers of confidentiality are meaningless."
But we don't actually know that the waivers were coerced, and we don't know why, if Rove gave Cooper a "specific [noncoerced] waiver," Miller could not obtain one as well.
How are we to believe Miller, given her past track record, in misrepresenting her sources and their agendas, at great cost to this country? When the people of the United States were reading Miller's articles during the months leading up to the war with Iraq, reasonable people could have concluded that Miller had real, unbiased, credible and diverse sources. Eventually, we learned from an internal memo from Miller herself, that most of her reporting of WMD evidence came from an Iraqi exile with low general credibility who was hoping to lead a post-Saddam regime.
Nevertheless, the editorial asserts, "The reporter, and the editors who are the writer's immediate supervisors, are the only ones who truly understand the nuances of the case."
Fine. But they owe the rest of the country's journalists—whose future ability to work with confidential sources and to operate with public credibility is affected by this—a far greater sense of what Miller's role was in the affair, and of what "nuances" are involved. This can be done without naming the source. For example, Miller could explain what the source told her, and if it was one or more sources, and whether she called the source or the source called her, without revealing the source's identity—which is the only issue involved in the confidentiality pledge.
As the Times editorial points out, Joseph Wilson was being honest in informing the public about the administration's efforts to mislead on WMD. And the White House was using the leak about his wife to deceive and distort.
But if the White House was seeking to put out misleading information, why was that not a Times story? Why did Miller, who covered weapons of mass destruction, not cover the Wilson saga when it first broke? Why did she not think it a worthy story to report the accuracy of Wilson's claims and the essential dishonesty of the White House's response?
In closing, the editorial underlines several conclusions, notably that "Journalists should not tailor their principles to the politics of the moment." By this, the paper means that, although Miller is not protecting honorable sources, that should not matter. Equally important, newspapers should not tailor their principles to the protection of their own interests and then insist that a higher cause is being served.
Investigative reporter and essayist Russ Baker is a longtime contributor to TomPaine.com. A contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review, he is the founder of the Real News Project, a new organization dedicated to revitalizing investigative journalism.
© 2005 TomPaine.com