Seeing Right Through The Times's Transparency

New York Times reporter Judy Miller: Offering transparency that's ever more clouded.
New York Times reporter Judy Miller: Offering transparency that's ever more clouded. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Tina Brown
Thursday, October 20, 2005

The age of the blogosphere has produced a new genre of mainstream journalism: fake transparency. The New York Times has become its foremost practitioner. The paper of record has been arraigned for arrogance so many times in the past three years that it has forgotten how useful arrogance can be. The Gulliver of West 43rd Street has gotten so spooked that now it preemptively lies down, affixes bonds to its wrists and ankles, and invites the Lilliputians of cyberspace to walk all over it.

After reading the 6,000-word takeout in Sunday's Times on the Judith Miller/I. Lewis Libby farrago in the Valerie Plame/CIA leak case, accompanied by Miller's own strangely cryptic narrative of her belated grand jury testimony, I know even less than I thought I knew before. Thinking I knew was actually more satisfying. It meant I could exude a vague insiderly outrage without having to penetrate the clues. For Arianna Huffington, the Miller story has been to her newly birthed blog, the Huffington Post, a miniature version of what O.J. Simpson was to cable news.

All the angst goes back to Jayson Blair. The fabrication debacle two years ago prompted the Times to sign on to the new censorious self-examining culture, in which journalistic institutions strive to be as transparent as religious and governmental ones (yeah, right). But not all stories are as Manichaean as the Blair debacle. The Miller epic is so complex and compromised it probably can't be truthfully told until after the special prosecutor has unloosed his thunderbolts -- and maybe not even then.

Readers would rather have waited and gotten a story they could at least understand. Newsrooms, however, can't handle that kind of old-fashioned restraint. The blogs are baying to be fed, the competition is kicking their butt on the story, the stock price is down. "Transparency" turns into a combination of partial truths and morose institutional venting that makes everyone, including the readers, feel worse about themselves and the newspaper than they did before.

All I could extract from Sunday's Miller marathon was her own implausible revelation that after having 85 days in jail to think about it, she has no memory of where she got that memorable Marvel Comics name -- VALERIE FLAME -- that was mysteriously inscribed in her recently surfaced notebook. Miller also mentions running into I. Lewis Libby in a cowboy hat and sunglasses at a rodeo in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and failing to recognize him. "Judy," he said. "It's Scooter Libby!" But was it? Maybe it was Don Imus. Or Moammar Gaddafi.

Don Van Natta's team-reported narrative included such baffling details as Times Executive Editor Bill Keller blandly noting that, after he took her off the Iraq story because of her lead role in co-authoring the erroneous stories of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, Miller "kept kind of drifting on her own back into the national security realm." Drifting? On her own? Is the Times after Blair some sort of trackless sea, with lone castaways afloat on rafts? To whom do reporters report? IS THERE ANYBODY HOME?

Such is the power of Dame Judith's mystique with Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. that his paper quotes him as saying it was Miller's "hand on the wheel" throughout the course of the legal decision-making even though his editors seem to regard her as a less malleable version of Madame Chiang Kai-shek.

The Times left out the best bit of then-Investigative Editor (and now Los Angeles Times Managing Editor) Doug Frantz's contribution to Van Natta's account of the day when Frantz and Foreign Editor Roger Cohen objected to a story involving allegations that there were 1,000 or more WMD sites identified in Iraq. Miller complained to then-Managing Editor Gerald Boyd, and, according to a quote that didn't make it in, "A couple of hours later, Gerald pulled Roger and me into his office and chewed us out. 'Judy Miller is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, and your job is to get her stories into the paper!' said Gerald."

Maybe this isn't so much transparent journalism as reality TV crossed with teenage soap opera, starring Miller as the alpha Heather. "It's official. I'm Miss Run Amok," she announces after a tsk-tsk session with Boyd. And Boyd's successor as managing editor, Jill Abramson, asked if she regrets any part of the Times's handling of the matter, replies sulkily, "The entire thing!" You can almost hear the door to her room slamming. The script is like a rejected pilot for the WB network.

It's the curse of mainstream media institutions these days that every time they make a stand on principle, they pick a story as murky as the times we live in. There was CBS's Rathergate, in which the steamrolling producer Mary Mapes played a Miller-like role. And the BBC had the Dodgy Dossier saga, in which the excitable Andrew Gilligan overstated a report about how Downing Street hyped the imminence of the threat from Hussein's WMDs. Both these stories -- right in essence, wrong in the particular -- wound up being driven over cliffs by journalists who got too embedded with their sources. In Miller's case it was even more theater of the absurd. She had the name wrong and the story right, but at least this time they didn't print it.

You have to feel sorry for Sulzberger. Like every spirited young man who inherits a newspaper, he hankers after something more exciting than sitting in the front office fretting over the price of newsprint. He wants to feel as real in his role as valiant publisher as his reporters -- those driven, passionate, sometimes reckless seekers after truth -- feel in theirs. When he threw his support behind Miller's fight to protect her sources, he didn't think he was in a bad reality show. He thought it was an Oscar-winning movie -- "The Pentagon Papers 2."

We'd have liked that, too. But we don't have to look back that far for inspiration when there are so many great reporters at the Times and elsewhere putting themselves on the line every day for stories that do run rather than stories that don't. That's the ultimate bathos of the Judy Miller saga -- appropriate, perhaps, for our virtual, "transparent" age.

2005Tina Brown

© 2005 The Washington Post Company