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After 'NY Times' Probe: Keller Must Fire Miller, and Apologize to Readers
Published on Sunday, October 16, 2005 by Editor & Publisher
After 'NY Times' Probe: Keller Must Fire Miller, and Apologize to Readers
by Greg Mitchell
 

It's not enough that Judith Miller, we learned Saturday, is taking some time off and "hopes" to return to the New York Times newsroom. As the newspaper's devastating account of her Plame games -- and her own first-person sidebar -- make clear, she should be promptly dismissed for crimes against journalism, and her own newspaper. And Bill Keller, executive editor, who let her get away with it, owes readers, at the minimum, an apology instead of merely hailing his paper's long-delayed analysis and saying that readers can make of it what they will.

Let's put aside for the moment Miller exhibiting the same selective memory favored by her former friends and sources in the White House, in claiming that for the life of her she cannot recall how the name of "Valerie Flame" got into the reporter's notebook she took to her interview with Libby; how she learned about the CIA operative from other sources (whom she can't name or even recall when it happened).

Bad enough, but let's stick to the journalism issues. Saturday's Times article, without calling for Miller's dismissal, or Keller's apology, made the case for both actions in this pithy, frank, and brutal assessment: "The Times incurred millions of dollars in legal fees in Ms. Miller's case. It limited its own ability to cover aspects of one of the biggest scandals of the day. Even as the paper asked for the public's support, it was unable to answer its questions."

It followed that paragraph with Keller's view: "It's too early to judge."

Like Keller says, make of it what you will. My view: Miller did far more damage to her newspaper than did Jayson Blair, and that's not even counting her WMD reporting, which hurt and embarrassed the paper in other ways.

The Times should let Miller, like Blair, go off to write a book, with no return ticket. We all know how well that worked out for Blair.

Miller should be fired if for nothing more than this: After her paper promised a full accounting, and her full cooperation, in its probe, it reported Saturday, "Miller generally would not discuss her interactions with editors, elaborate on the written account of her grand jury testimony or allow reporters to review her notes."

As for Keller's apology (or more), consider just one of a dozen humbling sentences from the Times story: "Interviews show that the paper's leadership, in taking what they considered to be a principled stand, ultimately left the major decisions in the case up to Ms. Miller, an intrepid reporter whom editors found hard to control."

Longtime Times reporter Todd Purdum testifies that many on the staff were "troubled and puzzled by Judy's seeming ability to operate outside of conventional reportorial channels and managerial controls."

At another point, Keller reveals that he ordered Miller off WMD coverage after he became editor (surely, a no-brainer), but he admits "she kept kind of drifting on her own back into the national security realm." Does he anywhere take responsibility for this, or anything else? Not that I can see.

Keller should also apologize to the "armchair critics" and "vultures" he denounced this week for spreading unfounded stories and "myths" about what Miller and the newspaper had been up to. If anything, this sad and outrageous story is worse than most expected.

But back to Judy, who tells us that she wishes she (and not Robert Novak) had the honor of outing Valerie Plame. Okay, to each her own, but what about apparently lying to her own editors?

--In the fall of 2003, after The Washington Post reported that "two top White House officials disclosed Plame's identity to at least six Washington journalists," Philip Taubman, Washington bureau chief, asked Miller whether she was among the six. Miller, of course, denied it.

--Miller claims that, contrary to any available evidence, she really did want to write an article about Wilson, but was told "no" by an editor, whom she would not identify -- perhaps she did not get a personal waiver. Jill Abramson, then her chief editor, says Miller never made any such request.

But equally damning, from her own first-person account: Revealing her working methods, perhaps too clearly, Miller writes that at her second meeting with Libby on this matter, on July 8, 2003, he asked her to modify their prior understanding that she would attribute information from him to an unnamed "senior administration official." Now, in talking about Joseph Wilson (and his wife), he requested that he be identified only as a "former Hill staffer." This was obviously to deflect attention from the Cheney office's effort to hurt Wilson.

Surely Judy wouldn't go along with this? Alas, Miller admits, "I agreed to the new ground rules because I knew that Mr. Libby had once worked on Capitol Hill."

There's more, much more, including this gem: She calls Scooter Libby, who helped take the country to war based on false evidence -- with a big assist from Judy Miller and her paper -- "a good-faith source who was usually straight with me."

This is the woman Bill Keller and Arthur Sulzberger decided to make a First Amendment martyr, tainting their newspaper's reputation like never before. As their paper's article reveals, neither asked Miller detailed questions about her conversations with Libby or examined her notes. Keller "declined to tell his own reporters" that Libby was Miller's source, Saturday's article dryly complains. The report also makes clear that he ordered ideas for articles related to the case killed. Most humiliating, the Times had a story about Miller's release from jail ready at 2 p.m. that day -- and it wasn't published until the end of the day, allowing other newspapers (even tiny E&P) to get the scoop.

Perhaps most revealing of all of Keller's quotes in today's story comes when he says that he wishes the paper's principled stand had involved a reporter "who came with less public baggage." In other words, only the public had a problem with her, not Keller. Her WMD reporting, the hatred she inspired in his newsroom, and her unwillingness to be kept under his control, didn't amount to any "baggage," in his eyes.

Saddest of all, Sulzberger tells his reporters today that he let Miller run this entire show "because she was the one at risk." He apparently doesn't realize that the newspaper he runs was at far greater risk, and will suffer much longer than she did.

Asked by Times reporters what she regretted about the paper's handling of the Miller affair, Jill Abramson, now the managing editor, replied: "The entire thing." Who is responsible? And how will they make amends?

Greg Mitchell is editor of E&P and author of seven books on politics and history. His column is a finalist for an Online Journalism Award in commentary.

© 2005 VNU eMedia Inc.

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