Judith Miller this week fell off her pedestal as a First Amendment heroine with a thud.
Miller is The New York Times reporter caught up in the CIA leak investigation who went to jail for 85 days for refusing to reveal a source and then came out of jail and testified anyway. The explanation for the long jail stay was an improbable tale of miscommunication between two crack legal teams, resolved only when her source, by now known to everybody as vice presidential chief of staff Scooter Libby, told her it was really, really OK for her to talk.
Meanwhile, thanks to a relentless campaign by the Times editorial page, a genuine commitment to the First Amendment by the press and the natural tendency to rally around one of their own, Miller became a martyr, with sympathetic stores about her surely uncomfortable stay in jail.
As most members of the much-abused mainstream media see it, the protection of the First Amendment requires in return an implicit commitment to dispassionate reporting and rigorous editing.
As the Times made clear Sunday in an impressive self-examination of the whole controversy, neither much held in Miller’s case.
Her reporting on weapons of mass destruction, her specialty, proved at first credulous, in whose presence in Iraq she very much believed, causing the paper to repudiate five of her stories, and the editor-in-chief barred her from further reporting on the subject. Nonetheless, absent any supervision, she kept “drifting” back to it.
As the special prosecutor’s CIA leak probe expanded, Times executives showed a stunning lack of curiosity about her notes and sources. She stonewalled the Times reporters assigned to the Sunday piece and wouldn’t discuss her sources with them either. She may have seriously misled her Washington bureau chief about her conversations with Libby. She claims a security clearance that the Pentagon says she never had. And she says she can’t remember who first told her about Valerie Plame.
Chiefs of staff are notoriously busy, but in a few weeks in the summer of 2003, Miller had a sit-down with Libby at his office, talked to him at least once by phone and, two days after Plame’s husband wrote an oped accusing the Bush administration of misrepresenting WMD intelligence, she had a two-hour breakfast with Libby.
This suggests that she was a willing participant in the administration’s campaign, first, to dramatize the threat of Iraqi WMDs and then, when none were found, to suppress evidence that they never existed. This is advocacy, not journalism.
It is a truism among journalists that we always seem to have to fight First Amendment battles on flawed ground, and the Judith Miller case is proof of that.
(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com)