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After much delay, the New York Times’ long-awaited investigation of reporter Judith Miller’s 85-day jail stint for refusing to testify in Plamegate — and an accompanying "personal account" by Miller herself — was published on Sunday. Conspiracy buffs were probably disappointed. But Times critics probably weren’t.
When it came to a smoking gun, the postmortems fell short. Miller’s account — complete with frustrating memory lapses — certainly did not dramatically finger Cheney chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby for leaking the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame in retaliation against Plame’s husband and Iraq-war critic Joseph Wilson.
What was most notable about the Times story was its portrayal of the paper’s uneasy and undisciplined relationship with a bigfoot reporter who put its reputation and credibility on the line. Interspersed throughout the story were damning instances of communication and ego problems, some of which harken back to the systemic internal troubles that came to light with the Jayson Blair fiasco:
• The Times story called Miller "an intrepid reporter whom editors found hard to control." Another passage said that "inside the newsroom, she was a divisive figure. A few colleagues refused to work with her." The story recounted how one former Times editor said that Miller had called herself "Miss Run Amok."
• Before she became something of a media martyr by going to jail, Miller’s reputation had been badly tarnished by her too-unquestioning pre-Iraq-war reporting of claims that Saddam Hussein was developing WMD. In the Times account, Miller finally offered a modified mea culpa by saying "W.M.D. — I got it totally wrong. The analysts, the experts and the journalists who covered them — we were all wrong. If your sources are wrong, you are wrong. I did the best job that I could."
• Other parts of the story raised troubling issues about Miller’s coverage of pre-war Iraq. The reporters noted that after Miller’s supervising editor left the Times in 2002, "Ms. Miller operated with a degree of autonomy rare at The Times." After Bill Keller succeeded Howell Raines as executive editor in the summer of 2003 (in the wake of the Blair scandal), he told Miller that she was off the Iraq and WMD beat. But Keller was quoted, remarkably enough, saying "she kept kind of drifting on her own back into the national security realm."
• There are also hints at strain between Miller and her employer. The reporters said that in interviewing her for Sunday’s story, "Miller generally would not discuss her interactions with editors, elaborate on the written account of her grand jury testimony or allow reporters to review her notes."
There’s nothing in the Times revelations to support the view that Judy Miller deserved to be locked up for refusing to testify about a confidential source. But there was plenty to suggest that the paper has paid a major price for again failing in its oversight of a strong-willed reporter who had generated internal skepticism about work habits and work product. And that sounds all too familiar.
Issue Date: October 21 - 27, 2005
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