Press Secretary Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

Press Secretary Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

Press Secretary Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

Media criticism.
Nov. 11 2005 6:47 PM

Press Secretary Sulzberger

The Times publisher does his skeeziest Scott McClellan on The Charlie Rose Show.

Sulzberger: publisher or flack? Click image to expand.
Sulzberger: publisher or flack?

Notables who ordinarily shun television talk shows make an exception when the Charlie Rose invitation arrives because he offers them such a big, safe, dark room in which to chat. The show's blackened set, the late hour in which it airs, and Rose's protective style suggest a father lulling a child back to sleep after an early night fright.

Rose conducts the show's business as if the interviews belong to the subjects—not to the host—and that they're free to confide as little as they wish without risking his reprimand as long as they allow him to ask his tortured, show-off, preening questions. Yet last night, as New York Times PublisherArthur Sulzberger Jr. consumed the entire hour with bob-and-weave evasions about Judith Miller, even the accommodating Rose had to rebel.

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In the show's opening teaser clip, drawn from the final minutes of the interview, Rose throws his hands up, spreads his fingers, and waves his arms as if the two are playing one-on-one wheelchair basketball and he's attempting to block Sulzberger's shot.

"I'm not satisfied here that I've gotten—that you have been as completely open as I want you to be. Now, that's a decision for you to make, with respect to what this meant for the New York Times, how you saw this," says Rose, voice straining.

"This," of course, is the saga of the ignominious Judith Miller: The journalistic malpractice she committed on the weapons of mass destruction beat; her relentless grandstanding; her petulant insubordination at the paper; the treacherous and devious way she dealt not only with Times colleagues but with her bosses.

Instead of responding to Rose's unusually persistent questions, Sulzberger wheels away from them like a White House flack and attempts to smother the inquiry with words that make it seem as if they've been resolved:

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"Our job is to recognize when we make a mistake, learn from the experience, and move on."

"It's been hard on all of us. And—and I think we're now past it."

"The coverage appeared in the New York Times. Flawed, own it, moved on. We made changes."

"What's critical to remember here is that we made errors in our coverage of the weapons of mass destruction. We made them at the reporting level and at the editing level. We owned those errors in a very long and very detailed editors' note, and that was then over."

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"That's over now. [Miller is] now a retired employee of the New York Times. And the New York Times will move forward. And that's what's important here."

"Move on." "Past it." "Moved on." "Over." "That's over now." "Move forward." Sulzberger's jabber differs not one whit from the standard bullshit—"Move along folks, there's nothing here to see"—issued by every politician and corporate leader who finds himself trapped in the media's cross hairs. When a news subject relies on such transparent talking points as "it's time to move on," reporters know the story is only beginning.

As for the "very long and very detailed editors' note" acknowledging the Times errors to which Sulzberger refers (actually titled "From the Editors"), it measures a meager 1,150 words, about the same length as the column you're reading.

When Sulzberger tells Rose, "Miller was one of the reporters at the center of it, but not alone, and The New York Times is a—is an institution that runs—is run by editors, not by reporters. And we didn't bring the degree of editorial skepticism we should have brought to that story," he's dead on. Miller can't operate the Times printing presses. But nine of the 11 flawed stories highlighted in the "From the Editors" note are by Miller or co-bylined by her, evidence that the "institution," i.e., the editors, received generous help from one reporter in botching WMD coverage.

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The first Times figure to assign blame to the editors was former Times Executive Editor Howell Raines, who did so a year and a half ago. Raines, who ran the paper from September 2001 until he was ousted in March 2003, is largely considered the boss who unleashed Miller. In a May 27, 2004, Los Angeles Times news story, he criticized the paper's mea culpa, saying Jill Abramson—now the paper's managing editor—edited the Miller stories, and she deserved the blame.

Sulzberger, who denies that Miller "was running amok" at the paper, never disparages Miller in the whole hour. He alludes to how she lost the "trust" of Times editors and says, "Miller was one of the reporters at the center of [the flawed WMD reporting], but not alone." And when he calls her a "highly politicized journalist" he quickly adds that it's "not all her fault."

It's no exaggeration to say Sulzberger believes that Miller is a victim. Explaining why she couldn't come back to the paper, he tells Rose:

Judy is seen now, rightly or wrongly, through a highly political prism. And if Judy came back to the—to the newsroom of the Times to write restaurant reviews, Charlie, I'm convinced that the first time she gave a laudatory review of a restaurant, somebody would declare there's a political reason behind that.

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As if Miller needed any encouragement to think of herself as victim. It's a role Miss Run Amok has been playing ever since her critics first drew a bead on her. Last night on Larry King Live,Miller once again blamed "faulty intelligence" for her "handful" of flawed stories, neglecting to explain that real investigative reporters aren't passive conduits for intelligence but skeptical analysts of it.

Those who know him call Sulzberger a force for good in journalism, but he'll have to work on his public persona to convince me. His creepy caginess on the Miller subject and his refusal to answer Rose's nonthreatening questions in a satisfying, air-clearing manner indicate that he has agreed not to criticize her as part of her official "retirement." Instead of answering the questions, Sulzberger salutes Miller's talents by bringing up (twice) the team Pulitzer she won. He talks about the team Emmy she received. He cites her "four books." And with no sense of irony he proclaims her an "expert on terrorism."

If only Rose had thought to ask if he is legally free to speak his mind. It's a good question for the press hounds to ask Sulzberger the next time he plays press secretary in public.

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Disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co., which had a decades-long business affair with the New York Times Co. in Paris and shared custody of the Post Co.'s International Herald Tribune until 2002, when the Sulzbergers ousted the Grahams somewhat unamicably and took full control of the IHT. Send your favorite "Judith Miller as victim" anecdotes to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)