By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 17, 2005
Media analysts assailed New York Times reporter Judith Miller and her editors yesterday for what they called a series of missteps and questionable decisions revealed in two lengthy articles about the problems of covering the CIA leak investigation while defending the embattled journalist.
Alex Jones, a former Times reporter who heads the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, noted the paper's disclosure that Executive Editor Bill Keller had told Miller in 2003 she could no longer cover Iraq and weapons of mass destruction after some of her stories turned out to be wrong.
"If the New York Times does not trust Judy Miller to do stories in her area of expertise, what do they trust her to do, and why should we trust what she does?" Jones asked. "She's a great, energetic talent, but investigative reporters need to be managed very closely, and her characterization of herself as Miss Run Amok is something an institution like the New York Times can't afford."
Critics inside and outside the paper said they were amazed that Miller would not answer questions about her dealings with editors or show her notes to colleagues investigating the matter. They were equally surprised that Keller and Publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. left most legal decisions to Miller without pressing her about her conversations with I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's top aide, or asking to see her notes during the battle that landed her in jail for nearly three months.
Jay Rosen, a New York University journalism professor, said Miller's limited cooperation was "unforgivable" and provided "dead giveaways of someone who's hiding the truth."
"I just don't think there is any more Judy Miller credibility," Rosen said, while crediting Times editors with "telling some uncomfortable truths about themselves." He predicted that Miller will not return to the Times after a leave during which she plans to write a book -- a view shared by a number of her colleagues.
In yesterday's Times, Miller said Libby had told her on two or three occasions that Valerie Plame, the wife of a White House critic, worked at the CIA. Miller said she agreed to testify in the case only after Libby persuaded her to accept a waiver of their confidentiality agreement that his lawyer says was available all along.
Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Washington-based Project for Excellence in Journalism, applauded the Times for its "candor" in revealing "a serious divide within the paper" about Miller and management's handling of the case. But, he said, "the acknowledgment that the editor and publisher of the paper did not know what Miller's source had told her is remarkable. . . . It is still not clear entirely what principle Miller felt she was protecting that also allowed her to testify. Is it the waivers? Or is it that she just got tired of jail and scared she might have to stay there?"
Claudia Payne, a Times editor and friend of Miller, said the reporter "cooperated to the best of her ability under the circumstances." Payne said much of the criticism "is based on perceptions of Judy that are uninformed. Some of the declarations about high-handedness and trampling on people are simply not what I've experienced."
Others disagree. Craig Pyes, a former contract writer for the Times who teamed up with Miller for a series on al Qaeda, complained about her in a December 2000 memo to Times editors and asked that his byline not appear on one piece.
"I'm not willing to work further on this project with Judy Miller," wrote Pyes, who now writes for the Los Angeles Times. He added: "I do not trust her work, her judgment, or her conduct. She is an advocate, and her actions threaten the integrity of the enterprise, and of everyone who works with her. . . . She has turned in a draft of a story of a collective enterprise that is little more than dictation from government sources over several days, filled with unproven assertions and factual inaccuracies," and "tried to stampede it into the paper."
Pyes said yesterday he had no problem with the articles as published, which helped win one of two Pulitzer Prizes he shared at the paper. Miller, who is traveling, did not respond to a phone message, and her attorney declined to comment.
No single facet of yesterday's Times account drew more condemnation than Miller saying she cannot recall the name of another source who told her about "Valerie Flame," as she recorded the name in her notebook. Miller said the notation was in a different part of the same notebook used for her first interview with Libby in June 2003.
"It's hard for anyone to imagine that Judy either didn't know who provided that information or, if it was clearly someone else, why she did not make that available," Jones said.
Bloggers were much blunter. "This is as believable as Woodward and Bernstein not recalling who Deep Throat was," wrote columnist Arianna Huffington. Magazine writer Andrew Sullivan accused Miller of "pulling a Clinton." And Editor & Publisher columnist Greg Mitchell said Miller "should be promptly dismissed for crimes against journalism."
Several Times staffers, who asked not to be identified because of a reluctance to criticize their bosses, expressed skepticism about Miller's contention that she pushed an editor she would not identify to pursue the story of Plame's outing. Managing Editor Jill Abramson said Miller made no such request.
Staffers also complained that Miller's legal battle curtailed the paper's coverage. The Times delayed posting an online article on her release from jail -- which was ready at 2 p.m. -- until the Philadelphia Inquirer broke the story hours later.
"The Times felt helpless," Rosen said. "It couldn't print the news. It was very much trapped."