Miller time (again).

Media criticism.
Feb. 12 2004 5:53 PM

Miller Time (Again)

The New York Times owes readers an explanation for Judith Miller's faulty WMD reporting.

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If Miller—and the New York Times—think her WMD work was so exemplary, why isn't she covering the subject for the paper? Since late last summer, she's been effectively back-benched by the Times on the WMD story. The words "David Kay" haven't appeared in a Miller piece since an Oct. 3, 2003, story she co-wrote with James Risen.

Miller's dissembling continued this week when she told Women's Wear Daily on Feb. 10 that Massing's piece "misquoted and misrepresented" her. If Massing really misquoted and misrepresented her, don't you think she should have brought the subject up during The Connection's 45-minute broadcast? Massing responded to Miller's allegation in a letter to Romenesko, writing, "Per our agreement, I checked every quote with her prior to publication. She approved each and every one."

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Meanwhile, Miller is said to have sent a letter to the New York Review about the piece, but the publication's co-editor Robert Silvers says he hasn't received it. "I wonder by what method she sent it," Silvers says. He adds that Massing will defend any misquoting charges. [See the Addendum below for Miller's letter and Massing's response.]

There is much humiliation but no eternal shame in getting a story wrong—everybody who reports for a living makes mistakes from time to time. The only way to right the wrong is to correct the record and eat some crow, both remedies Miller rejects.

The Times published most of Miller's controversial pieces before Bill Keller took over as Times executive editor, so he's not directly responsible for her failings. Likewise, the stories all predate the appointment of Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent, so one could argue that it's not his immediate obligation to straighten out the Miller mess. But Times readers are owed something in the way of an explanation, and the newspaper could do worse than follow the standards of accountability set down on its own editorial page on May 26, 2003. When it appeared that the United States wouldn't find WMD in Iraq, the Times editorialized in "Reviewing the Intelligence on Iraq" that:

Numerous questions need to be explored. Some are narrow issues, like how the administration came to rely on forged documents to make the case that Iraq was trying to import uranium for its presumed nuclear weapons program. Others are broader, like the role played by a new special office in the Pentagon that applied its own interpretations to the information and analyses generated by the traditional intelligence agencies. A critical question is what information was presented to the president in the run-up to war.

If you substitute "the Times"for "the administration" and "the president," you catch my drift of my analogy. Perhaps Keller and Okrent don't owe Times readers a Miller rehashing, but the Times as an institution does. If Massing's analysis is right—and I think it is—something went dreadfully wrong at West 43rd Street. Especially given Miller's public proclamation that her WMD work met the highest standards of her profession, readers have a right to know: What went wrong at the Times?

Addendum: Feb. 13, 2003 Daniel Okrent, public editor of the New York Times, provided me with a copy of Judith Miller's letter to the New York Review of Books that disputes the accuracy of Michael Massing's article. Okrent says Miller's letter to the New York Review was sent via postal mail. This probably explains why the Review has not yet received it.

Miller's letter states:

Michael Massing misquoted me in his biased, selective account on how the press allegedly covered Iraq before the war. Though I asked him to read me back my quotes for accuracy and he reluctantly did, there is one that he missed. I did not say that as an investigative reporter, I was not an "independent intelligence analyst." I am both an analyst and very independent. What I said was that as an investigative reporter, I could not be an independent intelligence agency. *

Massing responds: