Right this minute, the bigwigs at the “paper of record” are breathing a sight of relief. Miller’s farewell letter was a concession, a metaphorical smoothing of her oh-so-ruffled feathers, but some at the Times may still see this as a triumph. They have, after all, cut their losses and rid themselves of a weighty problem. Now, perhaps, they believe they can get back to the business of journalism.
The platitudes are awfully sweet, but let’s cut the crap for a minute. Keller and Sulzberger aren’t out of the woods yet. This isn’t a movie (yet), and the Times’ claim that it is a noble, albeit imperfect hero in this charade is about as laughable as the revival of VistaVision. No matter how much you tinker with the facts, you cannot change the fundamentals.
And the fact is this: Jayson Blair was just the beginning, and Judith Miller’s escapades are symptomatic of a larger underlying problem at the late, great “paper of record.” That problem is the result of a not-so-secret trend in the highest echelons of journalism: talented reporters gaining so much notoriety for their work that they themselves become celebrities, and the connections that they cultivate become jewels in a very heavy crown and further remove them from what should be their true cause: reporting the honest-to-god, unbiased truth -- the very thing that gained them the notoriety in the first place.
It’s the mother of all Catch-22s – even Joseph Heller would choke trying to get it all down. Getting rid of Judith Miller won’t fix what’s wrong with the Times. In fact, it will be about as effective as removing a cancer-riddled limb while a much more aggressive and insidious form of the disease still eats away at the heart.
Yet even a swift surgical removal of Miller with a wicked sharp blade would have been preferable to the awkward separation that we’ve witnessed. This separation, with its fumbling embraces and retreats, its arguments over semantics, its apologies and its existential woes, is a miserable divorce, no matter how many times they tell us it is an amicable dissolution.
The debacle at the Times has done serious damage to the paper’s reputation. Some of it does indeed have to do with Miller’s agenda, but the primary responsibility for the Times’ failing reputation lies with the Times itself. Until it makes a concerted effort to resuscitate its dying tradition of responsible journalism and abandon its terminal self-interest, the paper will continue to be eaten alive. Instead of merely a divorce, we may all be on the verge of bearing witness to a gruesome and heartbreaking death.
As for Miller, let’s give her the final word that is her due: her farewell letter says she has chosen to resign “because over the last few months, I have become the news, something a New York Times reporter never wants to be.” It must have taken great force of will to write such a blatant lie, and an even stronger stomach to believe it. In a world where the line between politics and journalism has been virtually erased by people just like Miller herself, we have to come to the conclusion that becoming the news is, in fact, exactly what she wanted.
After her disastrous WMD reporting, retreating to jail and cloaking herself in the rhetoric of protecting a source, and the infamous Libby indictment, we have lost faith in her ability to accurately and honestly report the news. How else can she retain her place in the limelight except to become the news herself?