Judith Miller in Jail: Principle vs. Politics

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, August 2, 2005

Before Judith Miller of the New York Times went to jail for not revealing her sources, I offered her my services. I suggested that she tell me her source and then, once she was in jail, I would reveal that I knew, and the special prosecutor would jail me as well -- but not before I told another journalist. After four score and seven of us were in the calaboose, the prosecutor would -- like the British facing the indomitable Gandhi -- collapse before our moral force and leave us to honor our solemn commitments as we have done since time immemorial. I now know my plan would have failed. Apres moi , as the late Louis XV once said, too much of the press would still be writing about how Miller deserves her fate. It is a squalid sight.

The most oft-heard and fervent denunciation of Miller amounts to a political indictment: She was wrong about the war in Iraq. By that, these people mean that Miller wrote stories for the Times that buttressed the administration's argument that Iraq possessed fearsome weapons of mass destruction -- none of which were ever found. Miller, however, was not the only one writing such stories. It seems that much of the press, not to mention the Bush administration itself, was relying on a clique of ill-informed or outright deceitful sources who maintained that Saddam Hussein had these weapons by the barnful. Contradictory evidence was ignored.

It's possible that Miller came across dissenting arms experts or intelligence officials and failed to take notice of them. It is also possible that after the war she had a stake in perpetuating the WMD canard and failed to report that none of the weapons existed. These and other allegations have been brooded about in journalistic circles and on blogs where the usual journalistic standards of proof are for some reason suspended. I do know that Miller was not, as some irrationally insist, solely responsible for taking the United States to war -- no matter how influential her newspaper may be. Let me go out on a limb: George Bush would have gone to war without Judith Miller.

A somewhat typical blast at Miller comes from someone named Larisa Alexandrovna writing in Arianna Huffington's blog. "Pardon me while I intrude on the whorish theater of martyrdom now assigned to the likes of Judith Miller," she begins. She then proceeds to fatally oxymoronize herself by writing, "I agree that the principle of a free press is more important than any one journalist or source, but I do not agree that the principle applies to Judith Miller, who unconscionably helped lie a country into war and in doing so relinquished any right or privilege she had as a journalist."

The trivial problem with such reasoning is that there is no way to suspend the rights of Miller and retain the rights of everyone else. If you are so inclined, you can see Miller as the functional equivalent of the neo-Nazis who once wanted to march through Skokie, Ill., a town with many Holocaust survivors. It turned out that the Constitution applied even to Nazis.

The fury at Miller is ugly and does journalism no good. Whatever her politics, whatever her journalistic sins (if any), whatever the whatevers, she is in jail officially for keeping her pledge not to reveal the identity of a confidential source. (If that's not the case, then we don't know otherwise.) That pledge is no different than the one Bob Woodward made to Mark (Deep Throat) Felt or, if you will, the one I made to my sources back when I was revealing some unsavory facts about Vice President Spiro T. Agnew. Only Agnew's unexpected, but deeply appreciated, resignation saved me from going to jail. Like Miller, I thought my word was my word. Jail was something a journalist had to endure on occasion. It is, to quote "The Godfather's" Hyman Roth, "the business we have chosen."

The law is not in our corner. Maybe Miller could be faulted for making that clear, pushing matters so that an understanding has now been revealed as little more than a wish. Maybe it will even turn out that she is somehow complicit in her own incarceration. Maybe. Maybe. But in the meantime she's in jail, upholding a principle that has been an integral part of American journalism for years and years: You don't reveal confidential sources. At the moment, that -- not her politics or her reporting or her tempestuousness -- is what matters.

cohenr@washpost.com


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