Cracks in the fortress?

New York Times execs say the paper and its staff stand firmly behind jailed Judy Miller. But off the record, some are telling reporters a different story.

Published August 17, 2005 7:54PM (EDT)

When George Freeman, assistant general counsel for the New York Times, makes his way to his office at the Times' Manhattan headquarters, his colleagues usually raise the same topic of conversation: Judy Miller. As one of the attorneys working on Miller's behalf, Freeman says his co-workers are never-ending in their curiosity about the case. "People ask me about it every day, on the elevator, everywhere," Freeman told Salon. "How's Judy? How's she doing? Not a day goes by that I am not asked by someone."

With Miller now incarcerated for 43 days and counting, interviews with nearly a dozen Times staffers reveal widespread concern for Miller's welfare and support for the principle for which she is being jailed. "It is extremely upsetting to see a colleague in jail," says Adam Nagourney, a Washington correspondent. Adds Eric Schmitt, another D.C. colleague, "Everyone remains quite concerned about what happened to her." "I think most people have nothing but sympathy for Judy's situation," noted Craig Whitney, an assistant managing editor and 40-year Times veteran. "And outrage that she has to go to jail for a principle that we all believe in." Indeed, both inside the Times and elsewhere in journalism, the paper is being praised for standing by its reporter as she defends a journalistic tenet most in the industry find sacred.

But numerous staffers also have told Salon that Miller's legal saga has become a burden, and not just for the paper's 12-person in-house legal team, which has been swamped by her case. Troubling many staffers is the dark cloud of unanswered questions about Miller's reporting and role in the Plame affair. Some at the Times contend that Miller has drawn unwanted attention to the paper at a time when it is still healing after the Jayson Blair fiasco dealt a body blow to its credibility. "It is a big bet for the paper," one reporter who requested anonymity said of the Times' unyielding support for Miller. "The paper chose to make this into something to fight to the death. It may have possible negative consequences for the paper's image when people are spending an enormous amount of time and energy on the credibility of the paper." Although several Times staffers were willing to offer criticism of the paper, none would do so on the record for fear of retaliation.

The grumblings inside the Times have grown louder as more questions have been raised about the scope and nature of Miller's role in "Plamegate." Many of Miller's colleagues are unclear about exactly whom or what Miller is protecting. In the face of limited information, some speculation has surfaced that Miller is only pretending to protect a source to divert attention from her past problems. No proof exists that the theory is true.

More prominently, a recent report that Miller met with I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, less than a week before Robert Novak outed former CIA agent Valerie Plame in a 2003 column, has added to the speculation over what role Miller may have played in the leak of Plame's identity. The theory being peddled on the Huffington Post and elsewhere in the lefty blogosphere has Miller not on the receiving end of information from an administration leaker about Plame's identity, but as the one disseminating information about Plame to administration officials. This is just a theory, of course, with no known evidence supporting it. But it's fair to say that many Times staffers want Miller's role in the Plame affair clarified, and some of her Times colleagues are downright angry about what is known, and unknown, about her involvement.

Although Miller never wrote a story about Plame, she is one of several journalists targeted by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald in his investigation of who leaked the agent's identity more than two years ago. Although Fitzgerald has subpoenaed and interviewed several reporters, Miller is the only one who has so far refused to disclose her sources, prompting a federal judge to sentence her to jail until either she gives up the source or the grand jury ends its work, likely sometime in October.

Some insiders claim the Miller case has sparked new questions from Times critics -- and employees -- about the paper's credibility given Miller's controversial past. Other staffers say the paper has not been very forthright with employees about exactly what Miller knows, what she had been working on when she learned of Plame's identity, and how much editors know about her sources.

"The most common denominator is that there are a lot of unknowns about it," says one Times reporter, who did not want to be identified. "Both what happened, what's going to happen, and how the case will proceed. There are different levels of knowledge." Another reporter adds, "There are a lot of unanswered questions about what the editors really know and the public should know."

Some staffers say Miller's reputation as a hard-driving news person who "has stepped on a lot of toes" makes it difficult for them to back her completely. Others point to her questionable reporting in recent years related to the buildup to the Iraq war, in which she wrongly reported the likelihood of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Such reporting prompted the Times to publish an unusual editor's note last year admitting it had failed to adequately question such claims.

"She is obviously a very contentious person," one co-worker, who requested anonymity, said. "There are people who have a question about the integrity of [her] reporting." Another colleague called her WMD reporting "a dark chapter." "I'm not sure there is a lot of sympathy or support," a third fellow reporter said about Miller. Her baggage even prompted one journalism group, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, to rethink giving her an award in early August for her efforts. After an ASJA committee approved the award, an outcry from some ASJA members sparked a reversal at the board level.

But reports from within the Times about growing discontent about the Miller case and the paper's handling of it are in sharp contrast to how executive editor Bill Keller sees the situation. Responding via e-mail to submitted questions from Salon, Keller disputed reports that the case had drawn a lot of internal dissent. "A lot of things that are 'reportedly' true about this case and the newsroom reaction are either flat wrong or grossly inflated," he stated. "I think the prevailing sense in the newsroom -- regardless of what feelings individual reporters have about Judy and her past work -- is that they are glad the paper is standing up for her and defending the principle of reporters' need to protect their sources."

Other editors also contend that they have not heard internal discord. "If any member of the staff dissatisfied about our internal communication approached me, I would try to get some answers, within the limits of our necessary protection of sources, of course," assistant managing editor Allan Siegal said in a statement. "But no staff member has expressed that frustration to me." Whitney offered a similar view, saying, "I am unaware of any undercurrent of discontent."

Keller said he understood the staff concerns, but remains somewhat limited in what he can tell them due to the investigation and the involvement of a confidential source. "Believe me, I would like nothing better than to tell our staff whatever I know about this case. But we have a colleague who has been in jail for more than a month, and I'd need an awfully compelling reason to divulge information that could in any way complicate her situation further," Keller wrote. "I've talked about this case a lot -- in public, in interviews with various news organizations, and more privately with members of the staff -- but I have a responsibility to be cautious."

As for the paper's image, Keller remains unconcerned, saying the journalistic principle involved is more important. "It's of course secondary to the question of whether we are doing something we believe in," he said about the paper's image. "We've heard from noisy critics (mostly on the left) who are angry at Judy for earlier coverage, or angry because they suspect her source is someone they don't approve of. But this is not, at bottom, about any one reporter or any one source. It's about a principle. We've heard from others (mostly on the right) who disapprove of anything The Times does. But there's also been a significant outpouring of support for her courage and our steadfastness."

Keller also spoke to the questions surrounding what Miller's assignment was at the time she learned Plame's identity, but declined to spell it out. "While the questions of what Judy knew, and what she was working on, may be matters of general curiosity, the answers don't touch the heart of the case," he claims. "The question of what is going on with the case -- meaning what the special prosecutor is up to, and why he seems to regard Judy as important to the case -- is a mystery to me. It's something I'd like to have answered -- not just for our staff, but for our readers."

The Times has been steadfast in its public support of Miller and persistent in calling for her release. Unlike Time magazine, which handed over the notes and e-mails of its reporter, Matthew Cooper, after he was subpoenaed in the same case, the Times stood behind Miller's defiance of such an order. The Times editorial page on Aug. 8 even took to linking increased harassment of the press in other countries, like Nepal and Burundi, to Miller's incarceration. An Aug. 15 editorial followed with a clear demand that Miller be freed, stating, "If she is not willing to testify after 41 days, then she is not willing to testify."

Miller remains in jail at the Alexandria [Va.] Detention Center. Reports from visitors indicate she is holding up well, but has had some stomach problems related to jail food, misses the Internet and outside contact, and has had to withstand a constant stream of hip-hop videos on the communal television sets. She's had no shortage of visitors, ranging from Keller to Tom Brokaw to Lucy Dalglish of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to one report of embattled United Nations ambassador-designate John Bolton getting face time with her behind bars.

Observes Times columnist Thomas Friedman, "People really support Judy and this principle." Adds Nagourney, "I hope it works out for her."

By Joe Strupp

Joe Strupp is a Media Matters Senior Reporter.

MORE FROM Joe Strupp

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

The New York Times