Judith Miller exits

BY dk| IN Media Practice | 01/01/1900
A Times spokeswoman made it clear that Judith Miller would not be able to continue as a reporter of any kind, not just one covering national security.

Dasu Krishnamoorty

Judith Miller, who was first deified and later demonized by her own newspaper, is no more a part of the New York Times "convent." Before her were only two choices: quit voluntarily accepting whatever could be negotiated or prepare for an unceremonious sack. According to her employer what led to her departure were persistent questions about her actions that caused constant conflicts between her and the newsroom. But Miller would have the world believe that she had left because "over the last few months, I have become the news, something a New York Times reporter never wants to be."

Thus ended an increasingly uncomfortable relationship that saw editors and columnists trash her publicly both for her actions in the Valeri Plame leak case and her reporting on weapons of mass destruction. After 28 years of privileged existence, her leave-taking was not marked by anything resembling grace.  Miller’s make-believe of a voluntary exit fails to impress anyone. Both the executive editor and the publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. made sure to deny her the halo of a victim.

Speaking on PBS` The Charlie Rose Show, Sulzberger claimed that Miller had to leave primarily because she had become a politicized figure, which affected her ability to be seen as an independent journalist. He also said that the relationship between Miller and her editors had become strained. When Rose reminded Sulzberger that he had gone out of his way to protect Miller, he said, "There is no truth that I protected her because she was Judy Miller. We would have done the same for any reporter."

Miller has her own version. Appearing on Thursday on CNN`s Larry King Live show, Miller wondered "what brought about this 40-day tsunami on me, these attacks after I came out of jail." Asked whether she thought her writing contributed to the United States` going to war, Miller said she believed the President would have gone to war regardless of her reporting. Bush "would have gone to war without Judy Miller or The New York Times or all the other papers that endorsed the Senate vote" that provided the authority to go to war, she said.

What led to Miller’s nemesis was the undying embarrassment she had caused to the Times establishment by her series on WMDs based on questionable sources that made the Times look small in the world of journalism. Though the publisher received Miller on her release from jail, took her for breakfast and manicure and spent millions of Times dollars to defend her, what happened later that led to a sudden Times volte face is still shrouded in mystery. Many consider the barbs that the newspaper received from every media quarter turned the tide against her.


Though both Keller and Sulzberger expressed inane sentiments generally reserved for farewell occasions, Keller especially refused to withdraw remarks he had made about her misleading NYT’s Washington bureau chief Philip Taubman. "I continue to be troubled by that episode," Keller wrote to Miller. The Guardian wrote: "Her return to the paper after she was released from jail for refusing to reveal her source in a CIA-leak case became increasingly untenable, threatening open revolt in the newsroom and a rift between the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, and Keller. Indeed Miller`s principal leverage in the negotiations was the threat that she might come back to the paper and exacerbate the tension."


In a letter published in the Times as part of the ‘retirement’ arrangement, Miller said she chose to go to jail "to defend my right as a journalist to protect a confidential source," not only to honour her pledge of confidentiality but also to dramatize the need for such a federal law. Amy Goodman is not convinced. She said, "Unfortunately, the way anonymous sources have increasingly been used by the U.S. media is to protect a government source, someone who wants to further the administration line and doesn`t want a lie to be traced back to them. So it`s just a way of becoming part of the propaganda machine." It is possible that after some research, the Times came to know that Miller knew she was helping the Bush administration by her WMD series.


A Times spokeswoman made it clear that Judith Miller would not be able to continue as a reporter of any kind, not just one covering national security. Despite Keller’s directive that she should not do Iraq, Miller continued to work on national security that brought her in contact with Libby. She also tried unsuccessfully to wrest a promise from the Times to write an essay for the paper’s Op-Ed. page challenging criticisms made of her by some Times staff. Gail Collins, editor of the editorial page, put her foot down saying, "We don’t use the Op-Ed. page for back and forth between one part of the paper and another." However, Gail agreed to publish a Miller letter in the letters column.


As a pretext to continue to write for the Times after all the damage she had inflicted, she argued that it was necessary for her to correct the inaccuracies that had crept into her reports on WMDs based on faulty intelligence. She maintained that the right of reply and retraction was the mark of a free and responsible press. Miller contended that she had never flouted the Times sourcing guidelines.


Nobody has an idea of the settlement arrived at between the paper and Miller but as part of the agreement, Keller made public a personal letter he wrote to her in which he said he had never intended to imply she had an improper relationship with Lewis Libby when he described her contact as an "entanglement." Keller wrote, "I was referring only to the series of interviews through which you -- and the paper -- became caught up in an epic legal controversy."


The severance package was negotiated by the Newspaper Guild of New York. But a Times spokeswoman would not say whether the paper would continue paying her legal bills, saying the severance package was confidential. Miller told the New York Observer she was "really very satisfied" with the arrangement. She described herself as a "free woman," free from what she called "the convent of the New York Times, a convent with its own theology and its own catechism."


At the Larry King Live show, Miller gave back to Maureen Dowd the ‘compliments’ she had received. Unlike some people, Miller said, she holds on to a "quaint" standard that "you don`t trash colleagues, and you don`t trash the institution you`re working for." Later she said in years past she could not recall "a single columnist who ever attacked a colleague." She also revealed, however, that Dowd had visited her in jail. She added that Dowd`s attack on her was "painful ... I`d always admired her reporting. I was disappointed." She said she was very discouraged that the Times wouldn`t let her respond to Dowd`s column directly.


Harvard media analyst Alex Jones, a former Times reporter, called Miller`s departure inevitable.  "There was a feeling of frustration and anger by members of the Times staff about how they felt Judy Miller had in some ways compromised them and their credibility had been compromised by how the New York Times dealt with her." He said the paper still needs to fully explain "what went wrong." Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism said the Times also needed to tackle institutional problems that have lingered from the Jayson Blair reporting scandal. "A lot of (Times) people are entangled in this story."


One may assume that though this is the end of the Miller chapter at the Times, it actually might be the beginning of a war of words between former friends, Miller writing a book on her days at the Times and the Times unleashing a fresh anti-Miller campaign connecting it to new facts that the Libby trial may reveal.

  contact: dasukrishnamoorty@hotmail.com


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