Judy Miller, Piece of Work

By Eugene Robinson
Friday, October 21, 2005

If you've been following the twists and turns of the saga of Judith Miller -- the New York Times reporter jailed for refusing to reveal her anonymous source or sources, making her the only person imprisoned so far in the White House leaks scandal -- there are two facts that none of the stories has made clear.

One is the identity of the person who first told Miller that Valerie Plame, or "Valerie Flame" as she wrote in her notebook, worked for the CIA. That's something only Miller knows, or once knew -- she seems to have forgotten.

The other is something everybody in Washington media circles knows: Judy Miller is a real piece of work.

And I mean that in a good way, because pieces of work make the world a far more interesting place. There's one at every workplace, a larger-than-life figure who gets away with anything, who inspires others to shake their heads in outrage or admiration, who causes bosses and underlings alike to mutter or scream: "That So-and-So is a real piece of work."

If you disagree with that sweeping statement -- if you're thinking there's nobody who remotely fits that description at your office -- then I'm afraid the piece of work is probably you.

Actually, I should attribute my piece-of-work assessment of Miller to anonymous sources, though I wouldn't go to jail to protect them. I've met her -- we were at a dinner party together years ago; we've exchanged niceties at other parties -- but I don't claim to know her well. I do know legions of her friends and foes, and the view is unanimous: piece of work.

And now that the Times has published its lengthy account of Miller's role in the leaks affair, we have reams of written evidence. At a newspaper, theoretically, editors tell reporters what to do. But Miller's editors were so afraid of her, or so reluctant to deal with her, that she pretty much just blew them off. She described herself to one would-be supervisor as "Miss Run Amok" -- explaining, according to the editor, that "I can do whatever I want."

That statement evinces self-awareness, and it's true that pieces of work are sometimes cognizant that they're coloring outside the lines. Self-doubt, however, is an alien concept. By her own account, Miller spent 85 days behind bars -- in a real jail, not a country club -- because she believed a confidential source didn't want her to speak his name before a federal grand jury. The source, White House insider I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, says through his lawyer that it was all a misunderstanding -- that he had released her from her secrecy pledge many months ago. Several non-piece-of-work reporters who talked to White House sources managed to clear up any confusion and thus avoid the pokey. But Miller just knew what she had to do.

It was Shakespeare who coined the phrase: "What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form, and moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! . . . And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?"

There's much irony in that passage from "Hamlet" and also much irony in Judy Miller. She has famously sharp elbows -- as she herself has said -- and has been known to pitch a world-class fit when she believed another Times reporter was poaching on her turf. Her reporting on weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the Iraq war was embarrassingly credulous, by the Times's own admission. She fully bought the idea that Saddam Hussein had stockpiles of germs and gas, and it turned out he didn't.

Yet we shouldn't forget that Miller has a Pulitzer Prize on her rsum. The truth is that many of the great reporters I've known -- or, shudder, tried to manage -- have been pieces of work. They are driven. They become obsessed with the stories they're working on. They sometimes put more faith in their sources than they should, because that faith gives urgency to the search for truth. Often, when asked to team with colleagues, these piece-of-work reporters do not play well with others. Sometimes they're spectacularly right, and sometimes they're spectacularly wrong.

That's what editors are for, to splash the right stories across the front page and keep the wrong ones out of the paper. Miller may have been doing her "Miss Run Amok" routine, but if her bosses value her work as much as they say they do, they should have stepped in.

Pieces of work secretly want mature adults to keep them from going off the deep end. They'll just never admit it.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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