washingtonpost.com
High Noon on West 43rd Street

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 13, 2005 9:54 AM

What the NYT is going through now reminds me of an earlier crisis.

On April 29, 2003, I broke the story of how Jayson Blair had apparently plagiarized the story of a mother whose son was killed in Iraq from a San Antonio newspaper. Blair quit a couple of days later, which the Times reported in a short story (and editor's note), as did I.

For more than a week, as I published several more examples of how the young reporter had ripped off other people's work, had not spoken to people he claimed to have interviewed and not shown up in cities he claimed to be in, the Times wrote nothing, and Howell Raines said little. Then, on May 11, the Times published an exhaustive, 6,400-word examination of Blair's lies, and no one remembers the earlier delay.

Now I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, comparing the deliberate and twisted fabrications of Blair to the controversy surrounding Judy Miller. The Times has covered the basic developments in her legal case, and Bill Keller, unlike Howell, understands the value of talking to the press. But the paper is under enormous pressure to make a full accounting of the matter. If it does so in the coming days, and that account is deemed credible, the less than aggressive coverage of recent weeks will be forgotten. And that, at the moment, is what everyone is waiting to see.

Here's my report on where we are:

The anguish among New York Times staffers over the paper's handling of the Judith Miller saga has mounted in recent days, much to the consternation of its top executives.

"Of course I'm concerned by the very palpable frustration in the newsroom," Executive Editor Bill Keller said yesterday. "I share it. It's excruciating to have a story and not be able to tell it, and annoying to be nibbled at by the blogs and to watch preposterous speculation congeal into conventional wisdom."

As Miller, who served 85 days in jail in the CIA leak case, finished her grand jury testimony yesterday, she returns to a newspaper that has been torn by anger and confusion, not just over her conduct and dealings with Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, but over the way the paper has handled a story in which it has played a central role.

"A lot of the reporters have really been wondering and doubting their editors," said Adam Clymer, a former Times political editor and chief Washington correspondent. "It wasn't that they knew the defense of Judy was wrong, but they didn't have a sense of what was being defended. . . . People all over the paper think the Times should have been covering the story harder."

George Freeman, the Times Co.'s assistant general counsel, met with the Washington bureau last week to address staff complaints. "There was so much rumor and untruth and speculation going around," Freeman said. "I wouldn't characterize it as people being unhappy. People had a lot of questions and concerns. I hope to some degree I assuaged the concerns."

The Times has a team of journalists working on a major piece on the subject, under the supervision of Deputy Managing Editor Jonathan Landman, but has maintained it was impossible to publish such an article until Miller no longer faced legal liability from special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald and could cooperate with the paper's reporters. That stance -- challenged by critics who note there is no legal bar to a witness discussing her own grand jury testimony -- has left a vacuum.

"Within the Times, there's a great deal of concern about how this is going to reflect on the Times as an institution and therefore on them," said Alex Jones, a former Times reporter and now a Harvard media analyst. "Everybody wants a clean breast." He said of the editors: "Why they decided they could not speak, I really do not understand."

But Keller said yesterday that the paper was hamstrung by Miller declining, on the advice of her lawyers, to discuss what she told the grand jury. "It's very hard to disentangle the story of Judy's ordeal from the story of her testimony. It's hard to appraise, or even relate, the paper's handling of this case without some sense of what happened during those encounters with her source. I know it's hard because we've tried.

"And despite the understandable yearning for a simple parable, this is a complicated narrative involving a large cast of editors, lawyers and other officials of the paper, and involving imperfect human memories and differing points of view. We'll do our best to tell that story. And I hope we will do it justice."

Miller never wrote an article about the 2003 efforts of White House officials to disclose that Valerie Plame, wife of administration critic Joe Wilson, was a CIA operative. NBC's Tim Russert, Washington Post reporters Glenn Kessler and Walter Pincus, and Time's Matthew Cooper all testified in the case under waivers of confidentiality from their sources.

But Miller refused to accept a waiver from her source, Cheney aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, because she did not consider it voluntary. Miller left an Alexandria jail two weeks ago, agreeing to testify after Libby wrote her a letter and assured her by telephone that he was voluntarily releasing her from her pledge of confidentiality. That, in turn, made many journalists, inside and outside the Times, wonder why she had gone to jail in the first place.

"It isn't clear to me, and it isn't clear to people at the paper, exactly why the waiver wasn't acceptable in its earlier form when other people found ways to find it acceptable," Clymer said.

Interviews with nearly a dozen Times staffers, all of whom refused to be identified because they did not want to openly challenge their bosses, provided a mixed picture. Some said the newsroom is more demoralized now than during the 2003 debacle over Jayson Blair's serial fabrications, because top editors were deceived by Blair but in this case have embraced Miller's handling of the controversy and level of disclosure. The Blair revelations sparked a staff revolt against the autocratic management style of executive editor Howell Raines, who was ousted and replaced by Keller, a former managing editor.

While some staffers say Keller and Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. have allowed their passionate defense of Miller to cloud their journalistic judgment in pursuing the story, others, who respect Keller's more collegial management style, give them the benefit of the doubt for delaying a definitive account.

Miller has long been a lightning rod for her coverage -- some of which turned out to be wrong -- of whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction before and soon after the U.S. invasion. But Clymer said some of the animosity stems from her tenure as a deputy Washington bureau chief in the late 1980s, when he said Miller tried to force several reporters to leave the bureau.

"Judy is a very aggressive, hard-driving reporter," Clymer said. "She often demands that people do things, and bruises feelings. People in the Washington bureau tried unsuccessfully to persuade editors that her reporting about weapons of mass destruction was wrong."

Some media analysts intensified their criticism when the Times got scooped online, first on the story of Miller's release from jail and again on her discovery of additional, earlier notes of a conversation with Libby, which triggered yesterday's second appearance before the grand jury.

Jay Rosen, a New York University journalism professor, said on his PressThink blog that the Times "has lost the capacity to tell the truth about itself in this story. . . . What we don't know is why the Times has gone into editorial default."

American Journalism Review Editor Rem Rieder wrote on his magazine's Web site that the longer the Times waits, "it begins to look like there's something to hide. And credibility accrues to those nasty theories that Miller really went to jail to salvage her reputation in the wake of the botched WMD coverage."

Times columnist Frank Rich said in a CNN interview that he has been "frustrated" by the situation: "I think the Times, now that she has testified, has to be transparent about what happened, why her situation was different from Matt Cooper's, and indeed ultimately about her grand jury testimony, which, as I understand it legally, she's free to disclose, or will be presumably after Mr. Fitzgerald is finished with her."

Today's NYT report on the Miller testimony:

"Neither Ms. Miller nor her lawyer, Robert S. Bennett, would comment on her testimony as they left the courthouse."

That about sums it up.

In the news biz, at least, this remains Topics A, B and C. Roger Simon captures the chatter:

"A large table full of journalists. Chit-chat. Small talk. Issues of the day.

"'So,' the person next to me asks, 'what do you make of the Crazy Woman?'

"I am baffled. Any number of candidates swirl through my head.

"'Judy Miller,' the person says. 'What do you think?'

"One would think that Miller, the New York Times reporter who went to jail for 85 days rather than reveal her source, would be a hero among her fellow journalists. Not in this town.

"A few days after the 'Crazy Woman' incident, I bumped into a very respectable, very well-known reporter in the green room of a TV station and he, too, brought up Miller. 'I hear she went to jail because she needed it for her book,' he said.

"A few days later, there would be a report that Miller had negotiated a seven-figure book deal and a rumor (denied) that while in jail, she had committed to a speaking tour that lasted through 2007.

"I don't know Judy Miller, but I doubt any journalist would spend 85 days in jail for money, even a lot of money."

Arianna Huffington stays on the attack:

"What a difference 11 days -- and a suddenly discovered set of notes -- can make.

"After her first grand jury appearance, Judy Miller preened for the cameras triumphantly and talked about going to jail for her principles.

"There were no such remarks after yesterday's appearance. No attacks on blanket waivers or calls for a federal shield law. No wistful longings for a hug from her dog and a meal with her husband. Indeed, exiting the courthouse after her testimony, neither Miller nor Bob Bennett had anything to say.

"And I know you can't tell a book -- or a $1.2 million book deal -- by its cover but, by all outward appearances, the hour Miller spent testifying this morning was not an easy one. On her way into the courthouse, decked out in a bright red blouse and oversized shades, Miller was all smiles, chatting easily with Bennett. Afterwards, she was decidedly less bubbly. Kind of like, oh, I don't know, an Aspen tree clustered with other Aspens that have been hit by a hatchet and are starting to lose sap?"

In Salon, Sid Blumenthal , who had his own grand jury experience during Monicagate, doesn't like the media's performance this time:

"Unlike in Watergate, which was largely advanced by the press, this scandal has unfolded despite much of the press corps' efforts to avoid, demean or restrain the story until very recently. Also unlike in Watergate, major influences in the press have aligned with their sources in the administration, not with the professionals in the government acting as whistle-blowers."

Yet another justification for Harriet Miers, as the Boston Globe reports:

"President Bush yesterday invoked the religious faith of his Supreme Court nominee, Harriet E. Miers, to justify her nomination to conservatives who have criticized her scant record on social issues and her lack of judicial experience."

The quote is that people want to know about her background, Bush says, "and part of Harriet Miers's life is her religion."

Wasn't it supposed to be awful when the Democrats raised religion in assessing a nominee?

Hey, RNC chief Ken Mehlman is turning to bloggers--yes, bloggers--to rescue Harriet. Professor Bainbridge live-blogs the call (via Instapundit):

"11:41 Miers will not be swayed by the 'Georgetown cocktail set.' Mehlman acknowledges that conservatives have been burned by past GOP nominations, but emphasizes that Bush knows Miers better than past GOP Presidents knew their nominees. (But what happens if we don't trust Bush's judgment anymore?) Miers was involved in getting people like Janice Rogers Brown and Priscilla Owens renominated and confirmed. (A point in her favor)

"11:43 Judicial activism is interfering with the GWOT by "micromanaging" decisions. Miers will be solid on executive prerogative. Acknowledges that she'll have to recuse herself in some early cases. (Did she support use of torture?)...

"11:46 Questioner asked for concrete evidence she's a Scalia or Thomas. Mehlman says she is but doesn't support it with any facts.

"11:49 Somebody (I think Mark Coffey) asks about news that some candidates refused to be considered. Mehlman doesn't know.

"11:53 Tough question, which is basically how can we trust Bush after he flip-flopped on McCain-Feingold. Mehlman's answer is that legislation involves compromise, whereas judicial nominees are your legacy. (So what? The President has an institutional obligation to veto legislation he thinks is unconstitutional not to punt to courts.)

"11:54 Somebody (I think it was Ed Morrissey) asks why we're getting stealth candidates when we control the White House and Senate. Mehlman says we'll get information at the hearings (but what if Miers cleaves to the Ginsburg rule with both hands?)...

"11:58 I get to ask whether Miers' records on preferences suggests she'll be more like O'Connor than Scalia or Thomas. Mehlman won't comment on Miers role, but defends the position the administration took in the Michigan affirmative action litigation. . . .

"Call ends. My mind is unchanged. It was a lot of assurances but not a lot of facts. And facts are what we need."

Ed Morrissey , in the Weekly Standard, blogs the George-and-Laura appearance on "Today:"

On Tuesday morning, the Bushes appeared on the Today Show, prompting this exchange with Matt Lauer:

" Matt Lauer: Some are suggesting there's a little possible sexism in the [conservative] criticism of Judge Miers. How do you feel about that?

"MRS. BUSH: That's possible. I think that's possible.

"Sexism? That seems like an odd charge to toss at conservatives, especially since the entire exercise of this nomination appeared to revolve around the gender of the nominee. The first lady had campaigned for a woman to replace O'Connor, creating the impression that the same Bush administration that had only mildly challenged a University of Michigan affirmative-action program had suddenly adopted a preference system for the Supreme Court.

"In any case, the conservative critics had several ready answers to the charge. Most of them wondered why, if the Bush administration seemed set on selecting a woman, Janice Rogers Brown wouldn't have been considered. Brown, whose fearless writing has made her a favorite across the conservative spectrum, could have provided a solid and established conservative voice on the Court and would have made matters just as difficult for Democrats on the Judiciary Committee as John Roberts did. Her scholarship and erudition would have easily overmatched Senators Schumer, Kennedy, and Biden.

"If the White House considered Brown too controversial, then what about Edith Hollan Jones? Priscilla Owen also came to mind."

American Prospect's Michael Tomasky is glad that righty bloggers are finally seeing the light:

"Some of you are going to think the dog spiked my cactus juice when you read this, but I have to say I actually admire some of the conservative dissent on Harriet Miers.

"Yes, the vast majority of the criticism centers on the fact that Miers doesn't appear (to them, anyway) to be a reliable conservative. She voted for tax hikes while on the Dallas City Council, she sponsored a speaker series at SMU that featured liberal women, and so on. This, I understand, is what really has conservatives howling.

"But there has also been a second line of criticism complaining that she just isn't a serious enough choice. George Will, Charles Krauthammer, et al. certainly have intelligence; that Bush chose Miers insults it. I can't argue with that, and I even applaud it.

"It had to start sometime. Maybe the Miers fiasco will mean that some on the right will finally take a stand in defense of their principles instead of always making political excuses for the administration.

"Unlike the boy who cried wolf too many times, today's Republicans -- and conservative commentators -- are the boys who never cried wolf. On the size of government and the size of the deficit, for example, the Bush administration has been as anti-conservative as an administration can possibly be -- and has faced only scattered criticisms from most conservatives."

Kos seems wistful about Gore staying on the sidelines:

"To those who have held out hope, it just ain't gonna happen.

" Former Vice President Al Gore said Wednesday he had no intention of ever running for president again, but he said the United States would be 'a different country' if he had won the 2000 election, launching into a scathing attack of the Bush administration. 'I have absolutely no plans and no expectations of ever being a candidate again,' Gore told reporters after giving a speech at an economic forum in Sweden .

"Would Gore be a great addition to the race? Undoubtedly. I might even get excited about 2008 as a result. Will it happen? Nope."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2005 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive