Howell Raines Redux

Few acts of purification are more effective for a paper than one of its star reporters going to jail to (in PR theory) protect the First Amendment.
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As the New York Times' full-throated defense of Judith Miller hits new lows (Bob Dole brought in as a friend of the court?) the $64,000 question remains: Why is the paper linking itself so completely to Miller's fate?

"The thing you've got to understand," a source familiar with both Judy and the inner workings of the Times told me, "is that every big decision that comes out of the Times comes directly from the top. Nobody does anything there without Arthur Sulzberger's approval. It's the larger, untold story in all of this -- that he now runs the newsroom."

Sulzberger, who succeeded his father as publisher in 1992 and chairman of the New York Times Co. in 1997, has been friends with Miller for a long time. But that doesn't seem to be the reason behind the unequivocal stance on Miller. "You have to understand something about Arthur," my source explained. "He's always unequivocal. He doesn't have another setting. You're either his friend or his enemy. He either supports you in an extreme, almost childish, way or he won't speak to you."

Sulzberger has clearly chosen the extreme support path when it comes to Miller. "There are times when the greater good of our democracy demands an act of conscience," he said after Miller was taken to jail. "Judy has chosen such an act in honoring her promise of confidentiality to her sources."

Directly contradicting this position is a former Timesman with impeccable journalistic credentials. Bill Kovach, the former Times Washington bureau chief, former curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, and founding director of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, has publicly voiced what many in and around the paper are saying privately.

"When I was chief of the bureau in Washington," he told Sidney Blumenthal, "we laid down a rule to the reporters that when they wanted to establish anonymity they had to lay out ground rules that if anything the source said was damaging, false or damaged the credibility of the newspaper we would identify them. If a man damages your credibility, why not lay the blame where it belongs? Whoever was leaking that information to Novak, Cooper or Judy Miller was doing it with malice aforethought, trying to set up a deceptive circumstance. That would invalidate any promise of confidentiality. You wouldn't protect a source for telling lies or using you to mislead your audience. That changes everything. Any reporter that puts themselves or a news organization in that position is making a big mistake."

Apparently, Sulzberger is furious with Kovach for these remarks.

Of course, Times higher-ups sticking up for Miller is nothing new. According to another knowledgeable source, Judy was always allowed to play by different rules than other reporters: "She was given the license to operate without the normal editorial supervision, first in the Washington bureau and then later when she went to Baghdad."

This special treatment continued even as her reporting on Iraq and WMD was being discredited. First, her name was never mentioned in the Times' unprecedented May 2004 mea culpa -- even though 4 of the 6 articles the paper was apologizing for included her byline. Then, those in charge refused to fire her, even after she continued to defend her WMD reporting and her disgraced top source Ahmed Chalabi on TV shows like Hardball long after the paper's mea culpa.

"I think the United States has underestimated Ahmed Chalabi," she said to Chris Matthews in December 2004, speaking of the man who had pocketed $340,000 a month from the Pentagon to provide information that turned out to be dead wrong, and who the Bush administration said had passed intelligence to Iran that could 'get people killed.' This didn't deter Miller: "I think Ahmed Chalabi, despite everything that was done to him in May, the raid on his house, remains basically pro-democratic, pre-Western, pro-American."

After one such televised transgression, according to a source within the paper, "Judy was taken off the WMD beat. They were hoping she would quit after that -- but that's not understanding Judy. She was enraged and threw a fit -- then threw herself into covering the UN Oil for Food story. The problem was, some of the reporters in Paris working on the story wouldn't share a byline with her."

After the Jayson Blair scandal, it took a "third-floor mutiny" of Times staffers before Sulzberger brought down the axe on Howell Raines. Who will the axe fall on this time?

There are those who believe that ultimately the Times' support of Judy Miller is predicated on the paper's need to change the subject and cleanse itself from the stench left by its misleading coverage leading up to the war -- which makes the Jayson Blair scandal, by comparison, seem ludicrously insignificant. And few acts of purification are more effective for a paper than one of its star reporters -- especially the one most responsible for the stench -- going to jail to (in PR theory) protect the First Amendment.

Earlier this week on Lou Dobbs, Floyd Abrams, one of the designated cleansers, said of me: "What she dislikes Judy Miller for is not this [her actions in Plamegate], but earlier reporting she did on weapons of mass destruction". Sorry, Floyd, nice try -- but the Plame scandal is not a separate issue from Miller's WMD reporting. Indeed, it occurred as part of her WMD reporting. It came about not only when the White House was under attack but when Miller herself was increasingly being attacked by critics for her deeply flawed dispatches. When she met with her anti-Plame source -- or sources -- she was not only still on the WMD beat, but still a true believer promoting the administration's lies about Iraq's non-existent WMD threat -- despite an avalanche of contrary information.

Has anyone making decisions at the Times bothered to connect these dots?

"Sulzberger is definitely not a stupid man," said a source who has dealt with him both professionally and personally. "But he lacks a sense of nuance and modulation -- and is very defensive. So all conflicts become about him. In his eyes, if you attack Judy Miller, you are attacking him."

The question is: has the Times learned any lessons from the Howell Raines reign?

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