Judy Miller's Reporting: A Cancer on the New York Times ?

Signs of trouble and Judy Miller were like Mary and her little lamb. Everywhere that Judy went, a flashing warning sign was sure to follow.

Indeed, in looking back on her career, it's clear that there were more red flags popping up around Judy Miller's work as a journalist than at a May Day parade in Red Square.

We now know that Miller's bosses were being warned about serious credibility problems with her reporting as far back as 2000 -- a warning that came from a Pulitzer Prize-winning colleague of Miller who was so disturbed by her journalistic methods he took the extraordinary step of writing a warning memo to his editors and then asked that his byline not appear on an article they had both worked on.

In today's WaPo, Howard Kurtz quotes from a December 2000 memo sent by Craig Pyes, a two time Pulitzer winner who had worked with Miller on a series of Times stories on al-Qaeda.

"I'm not willing to work further on this project with Judy Miller... I do not trust her work, her judgment, or her conduct. She is an advocate, and her actions threaten the integrity of the enterprise, and of everyone who works with her. . . . She has turned in a draft of a story of a collective enterprise that is little more than dictation from government sources over several days, filled with unproven assertions and factual inaccuracies," and "tried to stampede it into the paper."

It's the journalistic equivalent of Dean telling Nixon that Watergate was "a cancer on the presidency." But while the Times corrected the specific stories Pyes was concerned about, the paper, like Nixon, ignored the long-term diagnosis. And, of course, the very same issues Pyes raised in 2000 -- Miller's questionable judgment, her advocacy, her willingness to take dictation from government sources -- were the ones that reappeared in Miller's pre-war "reporting" on Saddam's WMD.

And Pyes wasn't the only one at the Times raising concerns about Miller's reporting. As Roger Cohen, who was foreign editor at the time of Miller's WMD reporting, put it in Sunday's article: "I told her there was unease, discomfort, unhappiness over some of the coverage." And as has been reported by New York Magazine's Franklin Foer, Cohen did not express his concerns only to Miller: "During the run-up to the war, investigations editor Doug Franz and foreign editor Roger Cohen went to managing editor Gerald Boyd on several occasions with concerns about Miller's over-reliance on Chalabi and his Pentagon champions... But Raines and Boyd continually reaffirmed management's faith in her by putting her stories on page 1." (So, as Eric Altermann points out, the neocons got their Manchurian Reporter.)

Franz and Cohen's visits (piled on top of the Pyes memo) are eerily reminiscent of the email Jon Landman sent regarding Jayson Blair, in which he wrote "We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now." Here it was a number of respected journalists all but pleading: "We have to stop Judy from reporting for the Times. Right now."

But, instead, Miller was allowed to keep doing pretty much whatever she pleased. In fact, as a journalistic insider told me: "Howell Raines was thrilled with Judy's WMD coverage, however credulous, because it allowed the Times to slough off the liberal label and present themselves as born again tough hawks -- perfect for the post-9/11 zeitgeist." That was Raines. What was Keller's excuse?

Because perhaps the most damning admission in the Times' quasi-self-examination was Keller's pathetic claim that, despite being removed from her WMD beat, Miller "kept kind of drifting on her own back into the national security realm." "Kept kind of drifting on her own"? When did the Times stop being edited?

So Miller was very questionable goods. And everyone knew it. Yet this is the person they chose to rally behind, body and soul. And reputation.

The Times is in the midst of severe cutbacks, laying off 200 workers earlier in the year, with another 500 to come. "The paper is cracking down on expenses to such an extent," a Times staffer told me, "all travel now has to be approved by an editor. Used to be, if a story broke, a national correspondent could just book a flight and go -- and not have to wait six hours to get the trip approved. Now you need to have the agreement of an editor saying, 'Yes, this story is worth spending the money on, go'. That's a very big change for the New York Times. Yet the paper's management chose to spend millions of dollars in legal fees defending Judy Miller."

It's an utter disgrace, and an integral part of the paper's disastrous WMD coverage, which is without a doubt the blackest mark in the paper's long history.

And yet, even after all that we've learned, the Judy-ites continue to defend her.

"Judy has always been a pioneer and an agent of change." That was Tom Friedman on CNN. Yesterday. Hadn't he read his paper's story and Judy's laughable companion piece? Or maybe by "agent of change" he meant someone who has changed the culture of integrity at the Times to its polar opposite.

Tom Friedman -- and anyone else still hanging out at Camp Judy (I notice we haven't heard from Lou Dobbs or Tom Brokaw since the Judy-culpa came out) -- really need to update their talking points. Maybe they can all chip in and get a group rate on a good rewrite man. I suggest looking for a writer with a background in novels -- because trying to present Judy as anything even remotely resembling a journalist will now require someone very adept at crafting fiction.