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<em>Times</em> to Judith Miller: Drop Dead

Judygate isn't just about one reporter run amok, but about editors who have better hindsight than vision.
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Addressing his staff via e-mail last Friday, New York Times executive editor Bill Keller separated himself from Judith Miller with surgical precision. He wrote that had he known a year ago what he knows now -- i.e., that Miller was a Bush administration tool (in his words, "that Judy had been one of the reporters on the receiving end of the anti-Wilson whisper campaign") -- he would have been more inclined to sell her out long ago to special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald (in Keller's words, "perhaps more willing than I had been to support efforts aimed at exploring compromises").

A day later, in one of the more unseemly displays of piling on that I can recall, Maureen Dowd used her op-ed column to complain that Miller was prone to big-footing her colleagues and had a reputation for using what might generously be described as unconventional journalistic techniques to nail her stories. Miller, Dowd warned, is a moral threat to newspapering in general and the Times in particular. Putting aside the column's garment-rending sanctimony, none of this was exactly revelatory.

The day after that, Times public editor Byron Calame capped his account of the whole affair by calling on the Times to "review Ms. Miller's journalistic practices as soon as possible," making it highly unlikely that the Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter will ever darken the Times's doorstep again. But among his revelations was this sentence: "Mr. Keller acknowledged to me last week that his tendency to act slowly in response to criticisms about prewar coverage might have contributed to the dismay among readers and in the newsroom with the way the Times dealt with protecting Ms. Miller's confidential sources in the leak investigation." Translation: Keller's e-mail was not the result of any urgent desire to "take a first cut at the lessons we have learned" from the affair, as he'd claimed, but was in fact composed by a man with a gun to his head. Keller knew, as Arianna Huffington speculated the moment his e-mail was posted on the internet, that Calame was about to chastise the Times management, in its own pages, for its failure to disarm the loose cannon that is, and always has been, Judy Miller.

Ultimately Calame joined the Miller pile-on and, in the end, let those responsible for her supervision off the hook. So Bill Keller was shocked, shocked to learn that Judy Miller had an agenda that might not actually have been the same as that of the institution paying her salary. Gosh, how the heck was he supposed to have known that?

I'm hearing sympathetic chords in this all-too-familiar rondo of journalistic dysfunction and malfeasance. The melody may be WMD and one privileged reporter's selling of the war on Iraq, but the harmonies are provided by President Bush and CBS chief executive Les Moonves. It was Bush who told his FEMA head, "You're doing a heck of a job, Brownie" even after Brownie admitted on national TV that he had no idea what was going on in the New Orleans Superdome. And it was Moonves who let producers at 60 Minutes take the fall for a botched report on W's National Guard service, while CBS News president Andrew Heyward walked away with nary a slap on the wrist.

No one is suggesting that Keller is anything other than a distinguished journalist caught in a maelstrom beyond his control. Keller is indeed a distinguished journalist, and there are indeed forces beyond his control. But Judy Miller should never have been among them. Just as it's impossible to believe that Miller can't recall who gave her the name Valerie Plame, it's equally impossible to accept Keller's account of Miller "drifting" back to the critical national security beat, which she'd been forbidden to cover. At whose behest, this drift? If it was with the tacit or explicit approval of the publisher, did Keller say that this was not acceptable, that it was Judy or him? Well, no. And if Keller was simply not paying attention or, worse, felt too cowed by Miller's audacity to intervene, then what was he doing at the top of the masthead?

That failure of responsibility set the scene for all that followed. Everyone else seemed to know from the outset that this was a tainted test of a reporter's right to guarantee the confidentiality of a source. Why didn't the executive editor of the New York Times? By drinking the Miller Kool-Aid without demanding to know what she knew and how she came to know it, Keller abdicated his supervisory authority, which is, after all, the essence of his job and the most meaningful part of his contract with the Times's readers. We need only recall that three journalists knew the identity of Deep Throat: Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, and their boss, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee.

I hold no brief for Judy Miller. In February 1989, after she'd worn out her welcome at the Times's Washington bureau, she returned to West 43rd Street as deputy editor of the newly created Media Business department, where I was a reporter covering the television industry. "It worked out great!" Miller burbled to the New York Post. "I know nothing about communications, but I hope to learn."

She arrived with her own stationery -- no black Times Gothic for Judy, but embossed vellum, with a girly pink font announcing her name and title -- and the clear signal that every member of our beleaguered cadre would do well to just ignore that troublesome deputy before the word editor. This was going to be The Judy Show, a personal mission to prove that no mere relocation and change of portfolio would get in the way of using the Times to promote herself and her vision of the world.

Even 20 years ago Judy Miller was known as a willing bullhorn for the ruling class, including some she knew intimately. Those men in power are there for a reason, and you're not. Shut up and listen. Morphing from reporter to editor merely gave her more venues to sell that vision. If, like Judy, you understood power at the Times -- where the furtive seduction of the boss's boss while twisting the shiv in subordinates can be as important as a talent for getting the story -- you did fine.

Judy understands covert operations so well precisely because she has always been such a superb covert operator herself. No one was going to tell her what to do or how to do it. Until the Times wisely put it out of its misery, the Media Business department was an unwanted child, with no section of its own and no clear mandate. Thus it was a perfect petri dish for Judy Miller to grow back her tentacles before the next push for reportorial hegemony. Soon enough she was on to bigger and better things.

The fact is, ever since I joined the Times in 1986, Judy Miller has been infamously unfettered by the professional and personal constraints most other journalists assume to be part of the job. As it happens, I was the last reporter hired by executive editor A.M. Rosenthal before his retirement. Escorting me out of his office upon offering me the job, he sent me off with these words: "You know, it's a bigger risk for us than it is for you."

Though I left the Times in 1991, Abe was half right. Every hire is a risk for the paper; its reputation is always on the line. Yet even 20 years ago, the Times had begun to lose its claim on the aspirations and loyalty of journalism's elite. The roster of bylines that left the paper beginning in the '80s includes many of the fourth estate's best and brightest, most of whom went on to become stars at other media institutions around the country. At the Times the internal politics were brutal and the pay sucked. But the much larger problem was that as the world of journalism was being shaken to its foundations, the Times dug in its heels and bought its own PR. The industry's transformation continues unabated, of course, thanks to the ubiquity of the internet, cheaper alternatives to newsprint, and several generations of reading-averse news consumers.

Bill Keller promises to put out the best paper in the world despite the cutbacks that chip away relentlessly at the newsroom. But after a series of embarrassing gaffes, it's time for the paper of record to own up to the fact that much of the trust readers place in the Times has been squandered, not only by loose cannons but by the very people entrusted with its future. It's really no news to anyone familiar with the place that some people in the Times newsroom get away with murder. But this time around they contributed significantly to the nation's march to war.

Here's something else a lifelong editor told me when I joined the Times as an eager reporter anxious to leave my mark at the most important newspaper in the world. He was pretty loaded at the time (it was, after all, 12:30 in the afternoon), and he'd just been shifted from one position of uncertain power to another, considerably lower, to make way for someone on the rise, someone who understood better than he that loyalty was for losers. "Love the job," he told me, "but don't ever make the mistake of loving the institution."

Yet, in truth, even those of us who moved on from the Times continue to love it, to obsess on it, to watch every trainwreck with a mixture of schadenfreude and grief. We'd like to give it a good slap upside the head. For it's important to keep in mind that the Times remains the best paper this country has. I just wish we didn't have to keep hearing that from the Times itself. Especially when it grows more apparent each day that Judy Miller is no more an isolated case than Jayson Blair was, or that the failures of leadership reach higher up than any single byline. They are, instead, symptoms of an institution struggling with an identity crisis, one brought on by the ruinous combination of its own hubris and the steadily approaching threat of irrelevance.