The exorcism of the New York Times.

Media criticism.
Oct. 20 2005 6:52 PM

The Exorcism of the New York Times

In the name of journalism, the paper must cast out the unclean spirits.

Her ego was a weapon of self-destruction. Click image to expand.
Her ego was a weapon of self-destruction

The ongoing Judith Miller scandal—like Jayson Blair's journalistic malfeasance and the embarrassments of the Wen Ho Lee episode before it—has sent the old gray palooka down to the mat once again, where we find it wheezing, bleeding, and struggling to find its feet.

The paper recovered from the earlier disasters because it published detailed accounts showing readers where and how it went wrong. Those two exercises in self-criticism aren't perfect, but if you want to know why Blair happened or what caused the Times to so grievously boot the Lee investigation, they are the place to start.

But Miller continues to haunt the New York Times two and a half years after her Iraq work was widely discredited, because the paper has yet to document how she botched the story of the decade and catalog the role she played in the current White House imbroglio. Yes, the Times pointed to Miller's work in its May 26, 2004, mini culpa about its Iraq reportorial failings. And yes, the paper effectively ended Miller's career as a serious journalist last Sunday by portraying her as a newsroom loon and weapons-grade egomaniac. Assisting the paper in that assessment was Miller herself, whose accompanying first-person account described how she clawed her way into the Alexandria Detention Center and wimped her way out 85 days later.

The Times won't break free of Miller's malevolent spirit until the paper commissions an exorcism in print, akin to the ones it conducted following the Blair and Lee possessions. I've been calling for such an accounting since July 25, 2003, damning Miller for her credulous and slapdash weapons-of-mass-destruction reporting in the Times. I asked the Times to revisit Miller's sources and methods to show how she and the paper had been rolled by devious Iraqi defectors and administration sources.

Proof that Miller never played solo on the Iraq topic for the Times resides in at least four non-Miller stories published during in the war's run-up that glower with skepticism about the administration's case and methods. Likewise, in the post-invasion period, running right up to the date of the paper's May 26, 2004, mini culpa, the Times published at least eight corrective pieces by reporters Douglas Jehl, James Risen, and others about intelligence, weapons, and dubious defectors. (All of these stories are cited in the Times mini culpa.)

What the paper never did—even in its mini culpa—was to account for how "Miss Run Amok," Miller's pet name for herself, consistently snaked her bogus stories into the Times before and after the invasion. The mini culpa never mentions Miller or any other reporters by name, the implication being that the failure wasn't just individual but institutional, a notion I support.

The Times eventuallyknocked down Miller's Dec. 20, 2001, story "An Iraqi Defector Tells of Work on at Least 20 Hidden Weapons Sites" with the July 9, 2004, piece "Defectors' Reports on Iraq Arms Were Embellished, Exile Asserts." But the defectors Abdel Jabal Karim Ashur al-Bedani and the pseudonymous Ahmed al-Shemri, who deeply informed such Miller pieces as "Defectors Bolster U.S. Case Against Iraq, Officials Say"(Jan. 24, 2003) and " U.S. Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts," (Sept 8, 2002, co-authored by Michael R. Gordon) were never re-appraised by the Times.

Nor has the Times appeared to have ever re-investigated the sausage-works that produced Miller's bizarrely sourced Dec. 3, 2002, story "C.I.A. Hunts Iraq Tie to Soviet Smallpox" in which she advanced the idea that Iraq had worked with Russia in weaponizing smallpox. As best as I can determine, the newspaper never re-interrogated the famous Iraqi in a baseball cap who pointed at an alleged cache of WMD precursor chemicals for Miller and a squad of U.S. military WMD-hunters, MET Alpha in her April 21, 2003, blockbuster "Illicit Arms Kept Till Eve of War, an Iraqi Scientist Is Said to Assert." Nor have I found the Times article that revisits the erroneous shocker Miller published on Nov. 12, 2002, "Iraq Said To Try To Buy Antidote Against Nerve Gas." Anonymously sourced to "senior Bush administration officials," the piece appears to have been based on pure bunk.

The paper's earlier reluctance to thoroughly re-examine Miller's reporting could be a function of internal Times politics. Bill Keller, as good a journalist as there is in the business, became executive editor in July 2003 after a staff rebellion over the Blair deceptions forced publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. to seek Howell Raines' resignation. Keller, the theory goes, did not want to marginalize his predecessor's favorites, of which Miller was one, as he restored Times morale. And he didn't want to offend Joseph Lelyveld, who returned to the executive editor chair briefly between Raines' departure and his appointment. Later, when Keller published the Times mini culpa, perhaps he thought that he'd done enough to purify the temple. Many American newspapers wouldn't have done even that much.

By August 2004, when Miller was subpoenaed by the grand jury investigating the Valerie Plame leak and she chose to resist, it might have been legally imprudent for the Times to re-excavate Miller's work. Publisher Sulzberger, who instructed his editorial page editor to drape Miller's case in the First Amendment (resulting in more than 15 editorials, according to the Times story), probably would have expressed displeasure at his friend and personal martyr getting knocked in the pages of her own paper.

Today, none of those rationales apply. The Sunday Times account about Miller read alone paints her as an insubordinate, self-serving, and undisciplined menace you couldn't trust to assemble entertainment listings let alone file national-security stories. Conceding in the Times piece that her WMD reporting was "totally wrong," Miller proves she doesn't understand how journalism works when she says, "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." That is a lie. Reporters aren't conduits through which sources pour information into newspapers. And sources aren't to blame if a reporter gets a story wrong. A real reporter tests his sources' findings against other evidence in hopes of discovering the truth, something Miller was apparently loath to do.

Miller's ultramini culpa also slanders the fine reporters at the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau, Walter Pincus and Dana Milbank at the Washington Post, Bob Drogin and Maggie Farley at the Los Angeles Times, whom Michael Massing identifiedin the New York Review of Bookslast year as journalists who didn't get the story wrong. You can add to that list the writers of the aforementioned New York Times pieces from late 2002 and very early 2003.

Reading the Times Miller article along with the New York Observer's excellent Miller feature, Christopher Dickey's backhanded defense of Miller in Newsweek, and investigative journalist (and former Miller colleague) Craig Pyes' anti-testimonial in Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz's piece, it's difficult to imagine many of Miller's friends wanting to work with her again, let alone her enemies.

Asking the Times to exhume Miller's work and revisit the methods and practices that led to flawed WMD journalism at the paper isn't a veiled way of asking that witches be arrested for burning at the stake. Journalistic standards were betrayed at the Times. It was the Times, not me, that stated in its May 26, 2004, mini culpa that "the story of Iraq's weapons, and of the pattern of misinformation" is "unfinished business" and promised that the paper would "continue aggressive reporting aimed at setting the record straight." Unless the paper wants to hear Judith Miller's name yodeled with that of Walter Duranty on every occasion Times haters assemble, one last public exorcism must be conducted to drive out the demons forever.

******

Interest declared: More than once, Miller has dismissed her critics as opponents of the Iraq war who have singled her out as some sort of scapegoat for their dissatisfaction over U.S. policy. For the record, I supported the invasion. Send e-mail and exorcism tips to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

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