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.

Judith Miller
Judy's turn to cry

Michael Massing flushes New York Times reporter Judith Miller out of her spider hole this week with "Now They Tell Us," a 7,000-word analysis in the New York Review of Books about the press corps' failure to see through the Bush administration's weapons of mass destruction hype. Writes Massing:

In the period before the war, US journalists were far too reliant on sources sympathetic to the administration. Those with dissenting views—and there were more than a few—were shut out. Reflecting this, the coverage was highly deferential to the White House. This was especially apparent on the issue of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction—the heart of the President's case for war. Despite abundant evidence of the administration's brazen misuse of intelligence in this matter, the press repeatedly let officials get away with it.

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Massing levels special scorn at Miller, whose WMD journalism published before the Iraq war, as he footnotes, elicited critical reviews in the  Nation, Editor & Publisher Online, AJR, and CJR, and by me in Slate. Responding to Massing's criticism that she channeled the administration's spotty WMD case, Miller blames U.S. intelligence for the discrepancies between what she reported about Iraqi WMD before the war and the latest findings of the weapons hunters. "The fact that the United States so far hasn't found WMD in Iraq is deeply disturbing," she tells Massing. "It raises real questions about how good our intelligence was. To beat up on the messenger is to miss the point."

How's that missing the point? If a messenger persists in delivering inflated and deceptive information—information that benefits her government sources—doesn't she deserve a good public flogging?

But back to our subject: Massing singles out the prewar reporting of the Knight Ridder Washington bureau for praise because its journalists eschewed the high-level sources, assistant secretaries and above, who "really closed ranks" behind the administration's message. Instead, they relied on "blue collar" agency employees—analysts and former analysts—to produce more skeptical findings than other newspapers.

Miller, who is quoted extensively in Massing's piece, faced him again on Feb. 3 on WBUR-FM's The Connection, where she disputed both the conclusions of his New York Review piece and his competence. In one hilarious segment about one-quarter of the way through the show, Miller claims Massing fails to "tell the reader how investigative journalism works," presumably because he doesn't understand it. According to Miller, this is how the investigative process works:

Basically you get a fact, you try and put it in context, you check that alleged fact with as many different sources as you can, and then if that fact turns out to be controversial or—within the government—or not believed by some as you go along you collect more information and you write again. And it's just too easy especially in an area where everything is classified and where people can go to jail for talking to you, it's just too easy to stand back and say why didn't you report this, that, and everything else. … [Click here for Miller Clip 1 from WBUR-FM's

The Connection, distributed by NPR.]

The piece that he wrote and his criticisms unfortunately reflects a lack of understanding of about one, how hard information is to get in the national security area and two, how newspapers really go about doing this. Believe me, I tried to vet information in every way that I could before it was published. We never published—not once—an administration allegation without checking it against alleged experts, independent experts, it's just very very hard when this information is this tightly compartmentalized and classified. [Click here for Miller Clip 2.]

Ordinarily, I don't unfurl credentials to defend somebody's reputation, but let me make this exception. As this 2001 biographical note indicates, Massing is the former executive editor of the Columbia Journalism Review and has written for the New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, the Washington Post, the Nation, the New Republic, the American Prospect, and Rolling Stone, among others. He helped found the Committee To Protect Journalists, scored a MacArthur fellowship in 1992, and in 1998 authored The Fix, a widely praised book about drug policy. It's absurd to imagine Massing doesn't understand the mechanics of investigative journalism or doesn't appreciate how difficult national security information can be to obtain.

Indeed, it's Miller who seems clueless about how investigative reporting works. Earlier in the program, she describes her role as the conveyor of official news rather than a skeptical reporter:

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