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.

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:

My job was not to collect information and analyze it independently as an intelligence agency; my job was to tell readers of the New York Times as best as I could figure out, what people inside the governments who had very high security clearances, who were not supposed to talk to me, were saying to one another about what they thought Iraq had and did not have in the area of weapons of mass destruction. [Click here for Miller Clip 3.]

Where did Miller learn the art of journalism? The job of a good reporter—investigative or otherwise—is more like that of an intelligence analyst than a stenographer. A good reporter is supposed to dig for the truth, no matter what "people inside the governments" with "very high security clearances" might say. The very point of Massing's objections about the prewar WMD coverage is that Knight Ridder folks got closer to the truth with blue collar sources than did Miller with all of her "inside" sources.

On the radio show, Miller conflates Massing's very specific criticisms of her work into a generalized attack on the New York Times, which his piece is not. She says:

The idea that the New York Times is just acting as a lackey for the administration—at any single day you can find reporters dissecting and analyzing and working on projects that challenge the administration's assertions and wisdom, that's what we do. And this notion that we were a pack all moving in one direction is, I'm sorry, it just doesn't bear any understanding of how a newsroom works. We love discomforting our readers. We love challenging the administration, saying, "Hey, what you've just heard may not be true." [Click here for Miller Clip 4.]

But Massing doesn't claim the New York Times is anybody's lackey; his detailed story is about Miller's unreliable and gullible reporting in the 18-month run-up to the Iraq war. Massing agrees with the thrust of my July 25, 2003, Slate piece, "The Times Scoops That Melted," where I speculated that Miller misled readers by relying too uncritically on Iraqi dissidents and defectors as sources.

But Miller says she bears no responsibility for having foisted inaccurate information upon the public because, she claims, other Times reporters mopped up after her, making the paper institutionally clean. From the same interview, she says:

Just because I don't write it doesn't mean that the New York Times doesn't write it. I mean, I love to think I can write it all. But even I can't. … So this is a constant, collective effort, and to just look at my work, and say, well, she wrote this and then she didn't get back to it, that doesn't mean the paper didn't. [Click here for Miller Clip 5.]

Once again, Massing's point isn't that the Times never revisited some of the topics Miller botched. But as long as we're on the subject of the Times revisiting her journalistic flops, I don't think anybody at the paper has ever revisited several of Miller's still-controversial prewar stories, including her piece about Russia's "Madame Small Pox," who was allegedly helping the Iraqis weaponize the disease; defector allegations about WMD caches in Iraq ("All of Iraq is one large storage facility" for WMD, the pseudonymous Ahmed al-Shemri told Miller in the Sept. 8, 2002, Times); or above all Miller's breathless April 21, 2003, dispatch about the Iraqi scientist in a baseball cap whom she described as pointing out the locations of buried WMD precursors to weapons hunters ("Illicit Arms Kept Till Eve of War, An Iraqi Scientist Is Said To Assert"). And that's just for starters. Several months after the war, Miller was citing the military's poor methodology for the failure to locate WMD in Iraq.

Rather than come clean on The Connection about her stories and simply admit that she was taken, Miller speculates that her stories generate so much "anger" because her critics are all antiwar or they're still furious about the 2000 election, and they've made her the scapegoat. Seriously! She states:

I think the reason … is that people are genuinely angry and upset and deeply polarized about the war. And I think they're genuinely upset and angry about the election of an administration that some people feel, you know an election itself that was, quote, stolen, and that all of this anger has kind of come to the fore in the debate over WMD in Iraq.

Give me a break! I'm one voluble Miller critic who can state unequivocally 1) that the 2000 election wasn't stolen and 2) the Iraq invasion was justified. To pretend that her critics have merely misplaced their anger is psychobabble of the most inane sort.

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."

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:

I spent several hours interviewing Judith Miller for my article, and another hour patiently reading back to her all of her comments for approval, as I had agreed. Whenever she requested, I amended her quotes. I particularly remember reading back the quote in question. If Ms. Miller felt it was inaccurate or misleading in any way, she could have asked that it be changed, and it would have been. But she approved it.

******

And if the Times acts quickly, I'll even buy the beer for the special-projects team investigating Miller's work. Send me a drink at pressbox@hotmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Correction, Feb. 13, 2004:A one-sentence comment by Daniel Okrent that was mistaken by Jack Shafer as part of Miller's letter was removed two hours after posting. Return to the corrected passage.

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