Sunday, October 16, 2005

All the news that's fit to spin?

This article appeared on CommonDreams.org on Monday, 10/17/05

10/17/05

"The Times is in turmoil. " That's how media critic Howard Kurtz began CNN's Reliable Sources Sunday. If he's right, it seems to be a turmoil at least in part of the paper's own making.

At long last, The New York Times this weekend printed its version of the Judith Miller saga, including a substantial piece by Miller on her testimony before a federal grand jury.

Substantial, I should say, in length. Because the article seemed to lack a significant component of the truth. When it came to revealing who might have given Miller the name "Valerie Flame," jotted in one of her notebooks, the veteran reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner wrote that she couldn't remember. That's it. She couldn't remember -- even though the outing of the covert CIA operative, whose actual name is Plame, was at the center of the controversy that landed Miller in jail and even though the words "Valerie Flame" appeared in the same notebook as notes from an interview with Lewis "Scooter" Libby, vice-president Cheney's chief of staff. Miller says she does not believe Libby himself provided the name because the notes from his interview were in another part of the notebook. Story finished.

So says Judith Miller anyway -- and so, it seems, accepts The Times by running both her long explanation and a longer staff piece in which the reporters tell readers that Miller neither would show them her notes nor answer many of their questions.

But who is The Times kidding here? Does the paper consider it a service to its readers to print what any skeptical journalist might well consider to be a lie: that Judith Miller, who spent 85 days in jail for refusing to testify and name a confidential source, can't remember who her key source is? Does The Times management truly believe her? And if not, why print such an assertion? Better that she write nothing at all.

For those who don't live within the sometimes narrow confines of journalism, some context is in order. Miller went to jail when she was subpoenaed to testify in a special prosecutor's investigation of who had leaked the name of Plame to the press. In addition to being a CIA operative, Plame is the wife of Joseph Wilson IV. He is the diplomat who infuriated the Bush admnistration by publicly contradicting its claim that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from Niger, a story used by the administration to prop up its assertion that Iraq was building weapons of mass destruction. It is against the law in some circumstances to reveal the name of an undercover operative in the CIA.

Interestingly, Judith Miller never wrote about Valerie Plame; columnist Robert Novak did. But somehow -- it's still not clear exactly why -- the investigation of special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald led to her doorstep. She chose to go to jail rather than talk, ostensibly protecting one of the most sacrosanct principles of journalism: Reporters who grant their sources anonymity must protect them.

But from the start, this smelled bad. Why is it a reporter's job to protect someone powerful within government who is trying to do someone else harm? Why would a news organization even print a story based on such an offer of protection? (When I was an editor for the San Jose Mercury News, the managing editor established a policy that the veil of anonymity could not be used to attack someone else.) And why did the journalistic establishment, or at least the publisher and editor of The New York Times, so quickly rally around Judith Miller, a reporter already under a cloud of suspicion for writing sourced articles in the run-up to the Iraq war that helped establish the administration's claim -- later proven false -- that the Iraqi government was on the cusp of having weapons of mass destruction?

Reading between the lines of a front-page Times article today about the Miller case, it's clear that many of her colleagues are perplexed and downright angry at their paper for special treatment Miller has received from its editors. It's equally clear that she remains a favorite of the publisher who has taken her cause as his own without digging deep enough to find out what her agenda might be beyond protecting a source.

I'm not sure I want to speculate on that agenda, but something is fishy here. Let's just say that perhaps Miller has reported on insiders so long that she's forgotten her job isn't to be one herself. If so, in the second term of an administration that's manipulated and at times even infiltrated the press like no administration before, that's a dangerous place to be.

Here Miller provides some of the evidence herself.

First, she implies in her article that she in the past had government clearance to look at classified documents. "I told Mr. Fitzgerald that Mr. Libby might have thought I still had security clearance," she writes, "given my special embedded status in Iraq." It is a sentence, deep in her article, that former CBS correspondent Bill Lynch jumped on in a letter to the Poynter Institute's Jim Romenesko, who compiles a widely read column on the media at www.poynter.org. Such security clearance, Lynch suggests, "is as close as one can get to government licensing of journalists and the New York Times (if it knew) should never have allowed her to become so compromised."

Why? He explains: Anyone cleared to look at classified documents would have to sign a "standard and legally binding agreement" that she could not reveal the contents of such documents -- a decision that flies in the face of the journalist's role as the public's voice and watchdog. The price for getting inside information, in other words, would be a legally binding promise not to reveal it. That's hardly a compact of trust between writer and reader.

Secondly, Miller in her own article, acknowledges agreeing to a source relationship with Libby that clearly would mislead the public. Libby in his second interview with Miller asked that instead of being identified as a "senior administration official," he would like to be identified as a "former Hill staffer." Miller says she agreed to the new ground rules "because I knew that Mr. Libby had once worked on Capitol Hill." What she didn't say is that such a sourcing agreement was a smokescreen, a way for him to attack Joseph Wilson with impunity and for Miller to mislead her readers into believing the critic -- in this case the vice-president's chief of staff -- was actually associated with a different branch of government.

So Judith Miller, who cut a deal to get out of jail and testify only about what Libby told her, says she can't remember who passed on the name "Valerie Flame." But she appears to know full well that she in effect gave Scooter Libby a free pass to pillory Joseph Wilson.

Whew. And journalists wonder why the public doesn't trust them anymore?

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