The Judy File: It Depends on What Your Definition of “Thorough and Comprehensive” Is

Here is how New York Times VP of corporate communications Catherine Mathis described Judy Miller this week: “Judy is an intrepid, principled, and Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist who has provided our readers with thorough and comprehensive reporting throughout her career.”

Gee, Catherine, it looks like the Times and the board of The American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) have very different definitions of “thorough and comprehensive” (let alone “intrepid” and “journalist”).

The Society decided Tuesday to reverse an earlier decision to give its Conscience in Media award to Miller due to what ASJA president Jack El-Hai called “a feeling that Miller’s career, taken as whole, did not make her the best candidate for the award”.

That’s like having a feeling that Rafael Palmeiro is not the best candidate for an Integrity in Sports award.

A “thorough and comprehensive” look at Miller’s career reveals repeated examples of egregiously lousy reporting, a startling lack of objectivity, too-close-for-comfort relationships with dubious sources… and a penchant for far from thorough and comprehensive coverage.

Leaving aside her well-documented buying of Ahmed Chalabi’s fabrications and fantasies, any rundown of Miller’s failings as a journalist has to include her “heard it from someone who heard it from someone” reporting on the WMD “silver bullet” scientist who turned out to be a dud -- and a sham. James Moore, in his chapter and verse dissection of the Miller method, says of this story: “Every piece of information she delivered to the front page of the New York Times appeared to come from secondary sources… Nothing showed independent confirmation or corroboration.” Yeah, sounds pretty comprehensive to me.

But we don’t have to rely on Moore’s depiction of Miller’s handling of the story, Judy herself described it in the original article in a convoluted third person disclosure that reads like self-parody: "Under the terms of her accreditation to report on the activities of MET Alpha, this reporter was not permitted to interview the scientist or visit his home. Nor was she permitted to write about the discovery of the scientist for three days, and the copy was then submitted for a check by military officials.” Care to venture a guess as to what grade a J-school student would get if they proposed using that reporting technique to a professor?

On the “intrepid and principled” checklist, we have Miller’s actions on a story she filed soon after the invasion of Iraq in which she quoted Amy Smithson, a chemical weapons expert. Trouble was, Smithson had spoken to Miller on the condition that she would not be named in the story (oops), and -- adding insult to injury -- it turned out that Miller had made up the Smithson quote that appeared in the story (double oops!). The Times issued a small correction that did not specifically assign blame to Miller (in what had been a co-bylined story) and Miller continued on her intrepid way.

Another interesting episode from the Judy Does Journalism Proud files is her reporting on the death of David Kelly, the British WMD expert who committed suicide in July 2003 after being outed as the anonymous source behind the BBC story claiming the Blair government had manipulated intelligence to help sell the war in Iraq.

Miller knew Kelly very well. He had been a key source for “Germs”, the book on biological warfare she co-wrote, she had quoted him in newspaper articles she’d written over the years, and the two had corresponded right up until his death.

Yet Miller failed to mention any of this when she co-wrote a story about Kelly the day his body was found, or when she wrote a follow-up story three days later. Not a word. This is all the more puzzling when you learn that Kelly had sent an email to Miller just hours before his death, warning that there were “many dark actors playing games”. The first Miller article on Kelly’s death mentions this e-mail but fails to say that Miller was the recipient.

Now this omission could be ascribed to the Times’ archaic practices requiring reporters to keep themselves out of their stories -- but don’t you think that’s the kind of information a “thorough and comprehensive” journalist might insist on providing her readers? Because the end result of this lack of transparency is readers not getting the full story.

Let’s hope that the editorial team currently leading the paper (which is different than the one in place at the time of the Kelly story) would disclose Miller’s relationship with Kelly and make it clear that she was the recipient of his pre-suicide e-mail.

Despite her shameful track record, Miller has yet to pay a price for her shoddy, inaccurate, and compromised reporting (other than the PR insult of having the Conscience in Media award withdrawn). And as Miller’s bosses at the Times struggle to rehabilitate her image, there is the clear and present danger that she may some day be put back in a position to wreak havoc on the truth again. This would be bad for the country, bad for the profession of journalism, and (in case anybody there still cares) bad for the New York Times.

Perhaps the paper of record can assign one of its truly intrepid, principled journalists to do some thorough and comprehensive reporting on all this.