The Judy Tsunami: The Groundswell That Never Was

Reading the latest New York Times Judy Miller editorial is the journalistic equivalent of watching a bombing comic pull out all the stops in a frantic attempt to wring a reaction out of his audience. You can feel the flop sweat dripping off the page (It reminds me of the classic Lenny Bruce bit where Lenny, going down in flames at the London Palladium, resorts to shouting out "Screw the Irish!" in hope of winning over the hostile British crowd. The Times opts for "They're screwing with the First Amendment!")

Today's impassioned defense -- No. 5 in an increasingly desperate series -- reads like it was written by someone in a rhetoric class forced to make a case for a cause they don't really believe in.

Kicking things off by calling Miller's 55 days in jail "an embarrassment to a country that is supposed to be revered around the world for its freedoms" the editorial writers manage to squeeze more leaps of logic, irrational conflations, and linguistic maneuvers into 398 words than I thought possible (Yes, "Judy Miller" and "embarrassment" are becoming more and more tightly entwined... but not for the reasons the Times editorial claims).

The crux of the editorial is a ludicrous attempt to show that a worldwide outpouring of support for Miller has created a veritable Judy Tsunami heading toward Pat Fitzgerald and the Alexandria Detention Center, ready to sweep her to freedom.

The proof? Well, according to the Times "a Paris-based journalists' organization" sent around "an impressive petition" last week in support of Miller that was signed by "prominent European writers, journalists and thinkers including Gunter Grass, Barnard-Henri Levy, the French philosopher, and Pedro Almodóvar, the Spanish filmmaker".

Forgive me if I have my doubts about how well-versed in the intricacies of the Plame case -- and Judy Miller's role in it -- Messrs. Grass, Levy, and Almodóvar are. Which do you think is more likely, that someone put a petition in front them and said "The Bush administration is throwing reporters in jail, please sign!" or that, after contemplating the latest revelations about Scooter Libby's early-July breakfast schedule, John Bolton's Plamegate memory lapses, and the eight pages of redacted material in Judge Tatel's ruling, the trio was convinced that Miller doing time for refusing to come clean and move the investigation forward is, in the words of the petition, "a miscarriage of justice"?

But the John Hancocks of Grass, Levy, and Almodovar are not the only evidence of the Judy Tsunami cited. Far from it! To buttress its argument, the Times once again drags out the backing of Bob Dole and the "poignant case" of "reporters in Pakistan -- Pakistan, mind you" who "took time out from their own battles to send messages of support". That really is poignant. And utterly pointless. It sheds absolutely no light on the key issue here: did Judy Miller act as a professional journalist or as an advocate who perverted the nature of journalism?

It's interesting to chart the shift in the Times' rhetoric from its first "defending Judy" editorial to this latest, clammy iteration. At least that maiden voyage, back on July 7th, included the "frank" admission that "this is far from an ideal case" -- indeed, that its details are "complicated" and "muddy". But even as those details -- and Miller's role in Plamegate -- have grown more complicated and more muddy in the ensuing weeks, the Times' position has become more simplistic: Judy is a martyr. Bob Dole and Gunter Grass and some guys in Pakistan (mind you) agree. Case closed.

It's pathetic, really. And wildly counterproductive. For far from rallying support for Miller, today's pitiable plea instead calls attention to how little support for Miller there actually is... even among the Times' own op-ed columnists. Not one of them has written a single word about their incarcerated colleague during the entire month of August, a time when the questions about Miller's actions have come to the fore. And even before then not one of them chose to devote an entire column to Judy's plight. Indeed, Bob Herbert, Paul Krugman, Tom Friedman, David Brooks and John Tierney haven't written a word about it. Maureen Down and Nick Kristof barely mentioned it in passing. And Frank Rich wrote three July columns on Plamegate without once offering even a full sentence to her defense.

It's the Times version of Sherlock Holmes' curious incident of the dog that didn't bark in the night.

Only Bill Safire, by then a former Times columnist, chose to devote a whole column to Judy (on July 29). And Safire is an unabashed Miller supporter. At a recent lunch thrown for him by Mort Zuckerman in his East Hampton home, Safire offered a toast to Miller "because she's in jail and we're not". According to four of the guests, the toast left them and many others at the gathering scratching their heads. As one of them put it: "why the hell should I be in jail?".

Today's editorial ended on a melodramatic note: "If Judith Miller loses this fight, we all lose. This is not about Judith Miller or The Times or the outing of one CIA agent. The jailing of this reporter is about the ability of a free press in America to do its job."

Give me a break. This is about none of these things. This is about Judith Miller. And about what role she played in the smearing of a whistleblower. And before we hang the future of the freedom of the press and the vitality of the First Amendment on her, it would be helpful to know whether she was simply an observer of that smearing or an active participant. It would also be interesting to hear from the Times why it has deviated from its own ethical guidelines, which make it clear that the paper's policy does not permit the granting of anonymity to confidential sources 'as cover for a personal or partisan attack'. That would certainly seem to include the commission of a felony. But I could be missing something.

Maybe Pedro Almodóvar can fill us all in.