Hard Times

Under fire from all sides, will the paper of record finally come clean on Judy Miller's role in Plamegate?

Topics: The New York Times,

Hard Times

It isn’t usually a good idea to predict what will appear in this weekend’s newspapers. News, by definition, involves the unpredictable. Still, by late Thursday afternoon there were signs that the New York Times was poised to finally publish its account of reporter Judith Miller’s role in the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity, which the paper has been promising to do since shortly after Miller was mysteriously sprung from jail two weeks ago. Some observers now expect the report to appear Sunday. The question is, will that be too late?

For months, the paper of record has been under fire from critics for essentially putting up a smoke screen around its beleaguered reporter. By lagging behind other papers in reporting on Miller, critics have been left to speculate that the mighty Times is running scared, that it’s been reluctant to look into just what Miller knew and what political figures she may have been in bed with.

Until now, the Times has offered a legalistic and none too convincing explanation for the paper’s reluctance to answer countless important questions about whom Miller was talking to in the summer of 2003, when the White House apparently launched a campaign to discredit former ambassador and Bush critic Joseph Wilson. Even though Miller was released from jail on Sept. 29, Judge Thomas Hogan, who is overseeing the grand jury investigating the Plame leak, did not immediately lift the contempt order he’d issued when Miller initially refused to testify. Times editors have said that Miller’s lawyers advised her not to talk to reporters until the judge lifted that order; and without getting the full story from Miller, the Times simply couldn’t publish anything on Miller’s role in the Plame case, they explain.

On Wednesday afternoon, that justification vanished. Miller made her second appearance before the grand jury, and Hogan then lifted the contempt order. Bill Keller, the paper’s executive editor, told Times reporter David Johnston that the judge’s ruling “should clear the way for The Times to do what we’ve been yearning to do: tell the story.” Asked by Salon to clarify this statement — did Keller mean that Miller would talk to Times reporters who are charged to investigate her role in the Plame case? — Keller was cagey: “If you’re patient, you’ll read your answer in our paper,” he wrote in an e-mail. (Miller’s attorneys did not return calls for comment.)



An explanation this weekend of Miller’s role in the Plame case wouldn’t come a moment too soon. “The New York Times is now being criticized by its friends,” says Alex Jones, a former Times reporter who heads Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. The Times’ silence about its own role has not only riled its longtime critics; the paper’s stance has also discomfited admirers, folks both inside and outside the paper, who, Jones says, “feel that its position as an institution is important, and is threatened.” The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz spoke to some at the Times who said the mood in the newsroom is more sullen now than it was during the Jayson Blair scandal.

“No matter what Jayson Blair turned out to have done,” says Jay Rosen, the New York University journalism professor, “this touches on something more important: the Times’ relationship to power.”

In not-for-attribution conversations with Salon, staffers at the paper cautioned that things aren’t as fevered as they were with Blair — nobody at the Times is calling for the editors’ heads yet — but the despair is real, and many would like answers from their bosses.

The questions about Miller reach back to her controversial reporting on weapons of mass destruction and her role in publicizing the Bush administration’s rationale for going to war. Her sharpest critics accuse her of aiding and abetting the attacks on Wilson and Plame, and of taking a stand as a First Amendment martyr only to rehabilitate her image. They hold the Times guilty by association; by protecting her, they say the newspaper is complicit in the Bush administration’s rush to war.

Critics have further speculated that the paper has warned its Op-Ed columnists not to write about this case. Gail Collins, the Times’ editorial page editor, has denied this charge, and one columnist told Salon that columnists had been given no direction whatsoever about what to write — or what not to write — on Miller. On Wednesday, Nicholas Kristof told the New York Observer that he may well write about the case: “I’m waiting, as a lot of people are, for the Times opus on it, and I don’t feel right now that I understand it well enough to weigh in. I’m eagerly looking forward to that piece. I think it’s important, and I may write about it if I have something useful to add.”

Byron Calame, the paper’s public editor, has also been accused of ignoring this case. Charged with pursuing the public’s questions with editors and reporters at the paper, he’s appeared to make no effort to determine Miller’s role in the Plame case. “I continue to watch developments in the Plame investigation with special interest,” he told Salon when asked about the case earlier this week. “If and when I have something to say, I will say it to the readers of the Times.”

On Thursday, Calame was more forthcoming. “The lifting of the contempt order against Judith Miller of The New York Times in connection with the Valerie Wilson leak investigation leaves no reason for the paper to avoid providing a full explanation of the situation,” Calame wrote on his weblog. Miller has already agreed to speak to him about the case at some point, Calame said.

The paper’s defenders note that there’s no evidence for the most fevered speculations about Miller’s role. And reporters at the Times — even a few who were concerned about the way Miller’s role has been handled — said there was one reason to be optimistic that things might turn out OK for the paper: The Times has assigned a solid, no-nonsense team of reporters and editors to the Miller story. The reporting team is headed by Jonathan Landman, a deputy managing editor admired for the facility with which he performs tough assignments. Outside the Times, Landman is best known for a famous e-mail warning colleagues about Blair’s journalistic transgressions: “We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now.” Staffers spoke glowingly of Landman’s independence; if higher-ups at the paper had wanted to whitewash the Miller story, they wouldn’t have put Landman on it, they said. Landman doesn’t do whitewashes.

Stephen Labaton, one of the few Times reporters willing to go on the record about the case, wrote in an e-mail: “I have a lot of faith in the professionalism of the reporters who have been assigned to examine what happened. I, along with my colleagues, are hopeful that they will provide a definitive account of this saga that will both lay to rest some of the myths that may be out there and also aggressively look at how events were handled by Judy, her editors, and the leadership of the paper.”

But observers still see storm clouds on the horizon for the Times, notwithstanding the journalistic talent it has put on this story. In many conversations about what the Times is facing, these were the most common questions:

Will Miller talk? And if she does, how much will she say?

Rosen, who has been unrelenting in his criticism of the Times on his blog Pressthink, believes the Times hierarchy — Keller and Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher — have expressed a kind of blind faith that Miller will cooperate with the paper. But any thorough report on Miller’s role in the Plame story will inevitably raise a host of uncomfortable questions for Miller and for the paper that she may feel she cannot answer — questions about the nature of her relationship with key Bush administration officials both in the summer of 2003 and for months, and maybe years, before that.

Rosen stresses that he’s only guessing that Miller won’t feel comfortable divulging everything Landman’s team asks of her. Still, if she balks, he sees disaster for the Times. “The moment of truth is going to come when they determine she’s not cooperative,” he says.

What happens if Miller doesn’t talk?

In that event, one thing the paper might do is hang Miller out to dry — Landman’s team can treat her as a kind of hostile witness in much the same way reporters investigating Blair’s sins did with him. “At that point you begin to report against the things she says,” says Rosen. “If her story’s not holding up, you build up the anomalies and report those — like the Times does all the time when they’re doing investigations of corrupt officials.”

This scenario presents some obvious problems for the paper, not to mention for Miller. So far, Miller has been zealously protected by the Times — in public statements, Keller and Sulzberger have offered fierce support of her stand, and the paper has praised her in its editorials. To produce a report that was the least bit negative about Miller — a report that suggests either that she got too cozy with Bush administration officials, or that she was just being cagey about her actions — wouldn’t look good for the paper, let alone for the woman it had held up as the paragon of journalistic ethics.

That’s why the paper could take another tack if Miller refuses to tell all: It could respect her secrets, and produce a report that didn’t tell all. But this too wouldn’t look good. As Alex Jones points out, everyone at the paper knows that a report it’s been promising for weeks will be microscopically scrutinized when it’s finally published. “If the account addresses the questions of why and who and what and has the feeling of a story that lets the chips fall, then it settles the question,” Alex Jones says. “But if the account has gaping holes people are going to notice. That’s not going to do.”

What story was Miller working on when she first became entangled with the Plame case?

According to notes Miller’s attorneys found last week, she first spoke to I. Lewis Libby, Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff, about Wilson in June 2003, before Wilson published his Op-Ed questioning the Bush administration’s claim that Saddam Hussein was seeking nuclear material from Niger. Why did she meet with Libby then? Why was Plame discussed? At the time, Wilson had been discussing his theories with many journalists — so was the White House trying to quietly tamp down this whisper campaign by contacting reporters like Miller?

No story by Miller on Wilson or Plame ever appeared in the Times. But did Miller ever write such a story that was never published (a thing that happens often in the news business)?

Who at the paper was Miller working for at the time, and did anyone else at the paper know of her conversations about Wilson and/or Plame?

There is considerable mystery over how Miller operates at the Times — who assigns her stories, who monitors her work, and who keeps her in line. Like any newsroom, the Times operates according to a hierarchy of editors and reporters where there are clear delineations between departments and coverage areas. Miller’s role, though, seemed sui generis; since 9/11 she’s worked in Washington, New York and Iraq, and according to some reports had no real boss for much of that time.

In July, Times reporter Douglas Jehl wrote that in the summer of 2003 Miller was working for “Jill Abramson, who was the Washington bureau chief at the time, and was assigned to report for an article published July 20, 2003, about Iraq and the hunt for unconventional weapons, according to Ms. Abramson, who is now managing editor of The Times.” But lawyers for the Times declined to tell Jehl “whether she tried to write a story about [Wilson's Niger trip], or whether she ever told editors or colleagues at the newspaper that she had obtained information about the role played by Ms. Wilson.”

What’s Judy Miller’s relationship with powerbrokers in Washington?

This is the most volatile question the Times will need to address — and, for many readers, the most important. Critics of Miller’s flawed reporting on weapons of mass destruction have long suggested she has a propensity to cozy up to Bush insiders. The story of her dealings with key players in the Plame investigation threatens to underscore that relationship — witness exhibit A, for instance, the bizarrely familiar letter Libby sent to Miller to release her from her confidentiality promise. In the letter, Libby effusively praised Miller’s work and suggested that she report next on the question of Iranian nuclear capacity. He also added an inscrutable — and, some bloggers say, perhaps coded — reference to Aspens turning out West because “their roots connect them.” You don’t have to be a critic of the Times to wonder: How are Miller’s roots connected to Libby’s?

“I want to know how Miller fits into this whole world of operatives and information hounds that stretched out from the Bush White House outward,” Rosen says. “Where does she interact with these people, this network of Republican activists, Republican campaigners, opposition research people.”

Answering this question fully would lead one much beyond Miller’s involvement in the Plame investigation, all the way back to the “origins of some of these events,” Rosen says, “when the whole case for war began to be put together. What was her role? Was the kind of relationship she had to sources during the WMD period mirrored in the reporting?”

If the Times dares to ask those questions — and if Miller ventures any answers — the result could prove more disconcerting to the paper even than its most recent scandal.

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