Flame On, Flame Off

In the calm, autumnal reflection of Sunday morn, it is impossible to shoo away the sad conclusion that Bill Keller and Pinch Sulzberger have fucked the dog. Screwed the pooch. Hijacked the greyhound. They seemed to have taken the lessons of the Jayson Blair fiasco and strove to do a lousier job protecting the integrity of the New York Times the next time a reporter brought ill-repute upon the paper. Now that next time is here, and it is no mere reporter requiring a cleanup crew, it's a journalistic superstar slashing her way through newsroom and cafeteria with Pulitzer Prize ablaze.

Let us not be too harsh on Judith Miller herself, however. She was caught up in the hypnotic voodoo of highstakes journalism. We've all been there. All of us veteran reporters who risk our parking privileges in pursuit of a hot story know what it's like to have strange words leap into your notebook out of nowhere in the middle of an intense interrogation.

You're sitting there having breakfast at the St. Regis with Scooter Aspen, buttering each other's toast, and somehow the name "Valerie Flame" pops up in your notebook without you knowing how it got there! It's your handwriting, sure enough, but rack your brain much as you will, you just can't remember which little birdie tweeted that name into your ear.

Like I say, it could happen to any of us intrepid reporters on the danger beat.

Nevertheless, it does appear inescapably evident that Judith Miller lost sight of where her true loyalties lay, or lie. Her first committment, the first committment of any star reporter, is to the integrity and reputation of her own phony-baloney career. And here Miller failed.

If she had been truly looking out for numero uno, she would have served her full sentence and then emerged chastened yet proud, like Martha Stewart, making America love her all over again even though we didn't love her the first time. Instead, she gets her get-out-of-jail pass before sentence completion, goes before the grand jury, and, to confuse matters more, goes before the grand jury a second time, emerging all secretive and full of no comment. Any publisher paying her seven figures for that aborted piece of jailhouse-courtroom theatrics is in dire need of serious counselling.

No, Dame Judith Miller made the error of subordinating her own interests and that of her newspaper to Scooter Aspen and his mysterious dance of the dangling waivers. And for that dereliction of duty, if justice is to be done, she must be booted through the uprights and never allowed to show her bangs and saucy at W. 43rd Street again.

As for Keller and Sulzberger, they owe us all a groveling apology mingled with sniffling tears and the ritual sacrifice of Pinch's stuffed moose.

"As for Keller’s apology (or more)," writes Greg Mitchell in Editor & Publisher, "consider just one of a dozen humbling sentences from the Times story: 'Interviews show that the paper’s leadership, in taking what they considered to be a principled stand, ultimately left the major decisions in the case up to Ms. Miller, an intrepid reporter whom editors found hard to control.'

"Longtime Times reporter Todd Purdum testifies that many on the staff were 'troubled and puzzled by Judy's seeming ability to operate outside of conventional reportorial channels and managerial controls.'

"At another point, Keller reveals that he ordered Miller off WMD coverage after he became editor (surely, a no-brainer), but he admits 'she kept kind of drifting on her own back into the national security realm.' Does he anywhere take responsibility for this, or anything else? Not that I can see.

"Keller should also apologize to the 'armchair critics' and 'vultures' he denounced this week for spreading unfounded stories and 'myths' about what Miller and the newspaper had been up to. If anything, this sad and outrageous story is worse than most expected."

Yes, we armchair critics resent being impugned, it browns our Cheese Doodles getting backhanded like that--especially by the editorial el supremo who allows one of his reporters to kinda sorta "drift" back on her own into the national security realm and, by not reining in that drift, forces the New York Times to defend her indefensible behavior and suffer millions of dollars in legal fees compounded by an incalculable loss of trust.

Jane Hamsher at Firedoglake has more, and you didn't think Steve Gilliard would let this go by, did you?

P.S. And don't miss the major ongoing deconstruction of the Miller's tale by Swopa and Fubar at Needlenose.