Imperfect martyr

Many -- including many Salon readers -- refuse to rally behind jailed, controversial New York Times reporter Judy Miller. But anyone who truly supports freedom of speech needs to.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published July 13, 2005 10:56PM (EDT)

"New York Times reporter Judith Miller is sent to jail for contempt of court, but not for writing months of front-page fiction about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction," a reader in California recently wrote to Salon. "Al Capone did time in prison for tax evasion, but not for murder. I guess you have to take what you can get."

That letter, which I quote in its entirety, pretty much sums up the response so far from Salon's readers (and much of the lefty blogosphere) to our two recent news stories about Miller, who is now serving a prison sentence for refusing to identify to federal prosecutors the confidential White House source who leaked information about CIA agent Valerie Plame, wife of a former U.S. diplomat highly critical of the Bush administration.

At least on the leftward half of the political spectrum, there is a wide gulf between the way the media is telling the Miller story and the way the public understands it. "I suppose the journalistic breast-beating over Miller going to jail was to be expected," wrote Elizabeth Bass, in a letter we published a few days ago. "No profession loves to trumpet its own importance more. But am I alone in just not giving a shit?"

Bass is by no means alone in her cynicism, nor completely unjustified. We can learn things by gazing into this abyss between the press and the public, but the sense of vertigo is not especially comforting.

Many readers have been less temperate than the author of the Capone letter, not to mention less amusing and less succinct. Salon also received at least two letters suggesting, with apparent seriousness, that Miller deserves not just prison time but the death penalty for her journalistic sins. (Salon published one of those, which I think might have been a failure in judgment.) A more lenient correspondent suggested a life sentence, while many others seemed to share one reader's pithy but less specific sentiment: "I hope she rots." (Most of the letters I am quoting in this article have not been published, and in those cases I am not identifying the authors by name.)

To describe the whole Miller-Plame affair as murky, or profoundly ironic, doesn't even halfway do it justice. As Salon reporter Farhad Manjoo wrote after the June 27 Supreme Court decision that all but ensured Miller would go to jail, the tangled narrative "is like something out of Kafka." One of the things that enraged readers, it seems, is the fact that the first wave of stories about Miller's legal peril (Manjoo's included) judiciously avoided confronting what another of our letter-writers called "the elephant in the middle of the room."

That elephant, of course, was Miller herself, and the notorious role she played during the Bush administration's buildup to the war in Iraq. I myself wrote an article last December suggesting that Miller and her newspaper, having been thoroughly hustled by Ahmed Chalabi (possibly at taxpayer expense), bore more responsibility for the Iraq misadventure than anyone this side of George W. Bush. I'd be lying if I said I'd never felt any childish moments of schadenfreude, or any feeling that karmic justice was being dispensed, as she got closer and closer to prison. Miller is also spectacularly ill-suited for the role of poster child for the use of confidential sources or First Amendment freedoms in general because, as numerous commentators have noted, the source she's now protecting wasn't some selfless, embattled whistle-blower, but rather "a high government operative determined to stab a whistle-blower in the back," as a Salon reader from Washington put it. (At this point, we'd all be shocked if her informant wasn't Karl Rove, or someone right next to him.)

So it was reasonable to expect at least some anti-Miller letters in the wake of Manjoo's and freelance reporter Michael Scherer's Salon stories about the Miller case. Like virtually everyone else in every branch of the media, Manjoo and Scherer reported Miller's impending and then actual imprisonment as a dark day for press freedom. Also like almost everyone else in the media, both stories sought to put the bizarre details of Miller's dilemma in context, while dancing around its most uncomfortable elements: Miller's tarnished record and the presumed involvement of Rove, dark prince of the George W. Bush White House.

But it's safe to say that everyone here was surprised by the consistently enraged tone of the letters -- furious might be a better word -- and by the insistence of many writers that Salon's coverage had fundamentally missed the story. Of the dozens of letters we have received on this issue over the last few weeks, no more than a half-dozen have supported the general tenor of Manjoo and Scherer's reporting, or indeed have seen the Miller case as in any way a matter of fundamental freedoms.

"What a steaming load of treacle and crap," the Washington reader wrote about the latter story, describing it as "laying on the sentimental details with a trowel" in an attempt to evoke reader sympathy for Miller as she was led off to jail. "I've had my objections to Salon articles before but this is unquestionably the worst piece you've ever run on any subject."

I think that criticism is fundamentally unfair, and probably based more on ideology than on the facts of the story. Scherer's piece in particular straightforwardly addressed the ironies of Miller's current role, and her past as a mouthpiece for Chalabi and, in effect, for the Bush administration's WMD disinformation. If the reporter going to prison had been freelancer Greg Palast, who has argued that Bush stole the 2004 election, or former Salon reporter Eric Boehlert, who has written extensively about the mainstream media's weak-kneed response to the White House, those same "sentimental details" might have brought our Washington reader to tears.

But I do think that the tide of powerful reader emotion we've seen at Salon, even though it's impelled by the Manichaean political climate of the moment, stems from a legitimate source. Journalism as a profession -- if, that is, it can even be described as a profession -- is facing a crisis of public confidence, and the wounds are partly self-inflicted. Scherer referred to the recent opinion poll that discovered "as many Americans consider Rush Limbaugh a journalist as Bob Woodward." Manjoo quoted Burton Glass, of the Center for Investigative Reporting, who explained that reporters "who in the past were seen as stewards of the public interest now are seen as the enemy or as part of the problem. If the public doesn't see the connection between protecting anonymous sources ... and their own public interest, I think our democracy is weakened."

On one hand, many members of the public -- especially liberals who ought to be staunch defenders of the Bill of Rights -- seem unable or unwilling to grasp the idea that a matter of fundamental principle might be at stake, even in the murky and seemingly bottomless waters of the Miller-Plame-Rove affair. Compelling a reporter to reveal his or her sources to the police turns that reporter into a police agent, and that's not acceptable, even in unsavory circumstances like these. No reporter can be expected to check out the legality or ethics or motivations of all sources in advance. All sorts of surprising people talk to reporters when they probably shouldn't, for all sorts of personal and political and psychological reasons. If journalists can only receive confidential information from the saintly and the pure of heart, the entire enterprise might as well become "The View."

It's worth suggesting that Judy Miller might be the Skokie case of press-freedom issues. It was back in 1977 when a small band of neo-Nazis from the South Side of Chicago launched a year-long legal battle by applying for a permit to march in Skokie, Ill., a suburban community with a majority Jewish population and a large number of Holocaust survivors. The neo-Nazis were a pack of losers with no coherent political ideology and little message beyond hate speech; their proposal to march in Skokie was pure provocation. But the various ordinances Skokie officials passed to try to stop the march were transparently unconstitutional, and the ACLU took the Nazis' case all the way to the Supreme Court, winning at every stage. Jewish members of the civil liberties group resigned by the thousands -- nationally, the ACLU lost 15 percent of its membership -- and some tension between Jewish organizations and the ACLU lingers to this day.

It should go without saying that for civil-liberties advocates and constitutional scholars, the issue was never whether the Nazis were repugnant (they were) or had anything to say (they didn't). Instead, it was a question of what legal precedent was being set. "If we had lost, a brand new set of First Amendment law would have been created," David Hamlin, then the executive director of the Illinois ACLU, said a few years later. "Any community in the country would have had the legal power to pass laws like Skokie's that would stifle not just Nazis but anyone they didn't like."

There's no need to draw the parallel out further, except to observe that the principle here is not approximately the same, but exactly the same. Even if you believe that Judith Miller is nothing more than "a shill for the Bush administration" (a Florida reader) or "a co-conspirator in a government coverup" (a Missouri reader), she's still entitled to the same constitutional protections as Greg Palast and Amy Goodman. Even, God help us, as Robert Novak, who seems to have peed his drawers and spilled the beans the moment the independent prosecutor rattled his cage. The First Amendment covers all members of the press, without regard to truthfulness, integrity or their perceived similarity to sub-reptilian life forms.

But the public's baleful view of the press is not totally without merit. Media insiders have become so obsessed by their own internal debates and so mesmerized by their own pseudo-professional codes of conduct that they've failed to notice how badly they've lost the public trust. The Times' near-sanctification of Miller upon her imprisonment is a perfect case in point. While the paper's profile of Miller finally, in backhanded fashion, connected her name to reporting on "supposed weapons of mass destruction" -- something that never happened in the Times' wobbly May 2004 apology for its Iraq coverage -- it also seemed like a transparent attempt to rehabilitate her image with the paper's moderate-to-liberal base.

The problem is that the journalistic establishment has no way of dealing with someone like Miller, who screwed up massively, but did so within the rules the profession has set for itself. Unlike the far less significant case of Jayson Blair, who became the subject of an enormous ritual purification exercise, Miller reported what she thought was the truth. She was led astray, one presumes, by some combination of ideological bias and journalistic hubris. The scary part about that -- the part the Times has never even tried to confront -- is that if a skilled veteran reporter like Miller can get so thoroughly hustled out of her shorts by a White House bagman, then exactly who in the media can we trust? One letter writer from New York stated this plainly: "If reporters and editors are wondering why the public has lost much of the respect for the media that they once received, they need to investigate no farther than Judy Miller."

A constant tide of right-wing complaints about the media's alleged liberal bias has also taken its toll on mainstream institutions like the Times, CNN and CBS News, which have tried to triangulate toward some ever-receding middle point in the political discourse. Like so much that the media does, this intellectually empty strategy is based on a misreading of public intelligence; Americans may be increasingly cynical, and not well-informed as a whole, but they're also not dumb. The right will of course continue to discern traces of "cultural elite" snobbery in mainstream media coverage, while the left will feel that the press has abandoned critical thinking and capitulated to mindless nationalism. For once, both sides will be right.

Even Monday's extraordinary White House spectacle, in which the press corps savaged press secretary Scott McClellan over the administration's hypocritical handling of the Rove-Plame affair, was really just another example of pack mentality in action. Sure, it's encouraging to see White House reporters behaving as if they might theoretically possess some stones, no matter the circumstances. But it's easy to play Woodward-and-Bernstein with a colleague in jail and a presidency now perceived as being on the ropes. These are the same guys and gals who spent four years dutifully copying down everything McClellan and Ari Fleischer said and telling us it was true; only the script has changed. Their anger seemed a measure of the tragically misplaced trust they had put in the Bush White House to always tell the truth.

Then there's the fact that a great deal of journalism basically has become "The View." The public may be forgiven for "not giving a shit" if the media establishment wants to wrap itself in the First Amendment with one hand and bleat about our precious freedoms while dispensing stories about shark attacks and Natalee Holloway with the other. It's not necessarily clear that a press engaged in a tabloid-esque race to the bottom, consumed by sensationalist pseudo-stories, nuggets of McNews and flag-waving rhetoric, is a free press in any meaningful sense of the term.

There's no quick-fix solution available for any of this; it's not like we can, or even should, swear off Paris Hilton and Tom Cruise forever, ditch the snazzy color graphics and go back to the mostly imaginary era of so-called serious journalism. Good reporting, solid writing and sound critical thinking are not limited by genre or topic; I suspect that Salon's TV critic, Heather Havrilesky, has more to say about the state of contemporary America than your average dozen earnest lefty bloggers. The problem is not "hard" vs. "soft" news, but canned and conventional infotainment vs. courageous reporting and independent thinking.

Nor do I think that the public wants us to dispense condescending lectures about Tom Paine and the First Amendment mixed into the Sunday funnies, or wants to sit still for public forums where journalists mull the value and risks of anonymous sourcing, or debate exactly how Judy Miller became Ahmed Chalabi's stooge. But I do believe that journalists have to become more self-critical and more willing to listen to outside criticism -- from readers, from the bloggers who zealously pick apart our deadline-frazzled copy, from whomever -- even when it violates the semi-professional norms we have so pretentiously internalized.

Frankly, if we want the public to respect our constitutional rights, we have to defend them by doing our jobs better and by explaining ourselves better. As a reader from California, who felt he had to read between the lines of Salon's Miller coverage for the real story, put it, "Whatever is happening here, I expect more accurate interpretation of all the nuances involved -- about the media, by the media, and for the American public. This is not my job, it's yours. And I expect you to do it."

My interpretation of the Miller case is that like the Skokie affair it's a kind of test. If you can't resist the feeling that Miller is being punished for her sins by a God who moves in mysterious ways, hey, I'm right there with you. Shed no tears for Judy. But this is a classic case of the poisoned chalice -- tastes great now, kills you later. The price we will all pay for this karmic redistribution of justice is not going to be worth it in the long run.

But it's only fair to let readers have the last word. After our second boatload of anti-Miller letters, Mark Hughes Cobb of Alabama responded in disbelief: "Absolutely amazing. Salon letter-writers who disdain freedom of the press. Perhaps a little reading of the Bill of Rights (certainly not a re-reading in any of these cases) would be helpful. The free press belongs to everyone; not just the New York Times, not Time, and not even to Salon and the blogosphere. If an out-of-control special prosecutor decides to come after your comments next, I'll be sure and write in with scathing remarks on your unfitness to wield freedom."

A student journalist from San Francisco, Daniel Jimenez, was more sad than angry, but his questions capture why even those in the media who believe Judith Miller did immeasurable damage to our profession don't think she belongs in jail. "Do we really want to add the United States to the list of nations whose governments use their power to punish political opponents, including perceived enemies in the media?" he asked. "Do we want the penalty for bad reporting, or at the least, falling victim to deceptive sources, to be not a correction or professional censure, but prison?"

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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