Sunday, October 16, 2005

Times Report on Judith Miller: Key Moments and Initial Comments

By Jay Rosen
October 15, 2005
Times Report on Judith Miller: Key Moments and Initial Comments
Here are my initial annotations of the big report. Key passages and brief comments. (Do add your own.) Plus my eight paragraph summary of the case and its press think.

I give credit to the Times for running the story a few days after they felt the legal clearences were had, for giving readers a look inside at decision-making normally hidden, for airing uncomfortable facts—including internal tensions—and for explaining what happened as well as the editors felt they could. This was a very difficult piece of journalism to do. As language in conveyance of fact, it is superbly edited.

I do have a small bit of news to break if you skip down to “After Matter.” Here’s my eight-graph view of the case and its mangled press think:
Maybe the biggest mistake the New York Times made was to turn decision-making for the newspaper over to Judith Miller and her “case.” This happened via the magic medium of a First Amendment struggle, the thing that makes the newspaper business more than just a business to the people prominent in it.

Miller’s defiance played to their images of Times greatness, and to their understanding of First Amendment virtue. She always described her case in the language of their principles. They heard their principles talking in the very facts of the case.

But her second attorney saw it more clearly. “I don’t want to represent a principle,” Robert Bennett told her. “I want to represent Judy Miller.” And that it is what he did. That is what she needed. The Times was the one left holding the principles.

Mostly they didn’t apply to a case that was bad on the facts, a loser on the law, quite likely to result in victory for the prosecutor, and quite possibly an ethical swamp or political sewer, since it was about using the press to discredit people without being named. All this would warn a prudent person away. It’s why other news organizations settled.

It never seems to have registered with Arthur Sulzberger, Jr.—Miller’s biggest supporter and the publisher of the newspaper—that he was fighting for the right to keep things secret, not for the right to publish what had improperly been kept from us. By taking on Miller’s secret-keeping (uncritically) the Times took on more and more responsibilities not to speak, not to publish, not to report. All this is deadly for a newspaper, and the staff knew it. By the end the readers knew it and they were crying out. Even the armchair critics knew a thing or two.

So did Bill Keller, so did Jill Abramson. But there was nothing they could do. By the time they realized what Miller’s secrets had done to their journalism, Judith Miller—by staging a First Amendment showdown she escaped from—had effectively hijacked the newspaper. Her principles were in the saddle, and rode the Times to disaster, while people of the Times watched. The newspaper never got its Robert Bennett.

And in the end her secret-keeping extended to stiffing the Times on its own story. The newspaper’s First Amendment hero wouldn’t talk, share notes, or answer any tough questions.

The spooky thing about her first person account was the suggestion that Judy Miller may have—today—security clearances that her bosses (and colleagues) do not have. This could be the reason her treatment is so singular. She said the prosecutor asked her if she still had special clearances when she met with Lewis Libby. She said she didn’t know. Does that sound good?...