What's the story with Judy?

The New York Times has a lot of explaining to do about Judith Miller, now that she's been released from jail. So what's the hang-up?

Published October 2, 2005 12:57AM (EDT)

When New York Times reporter Judith Miller was suddenly released from jail late on Thursday afternoon, it was the Philadelphia Inquirer, whose intrepid court reporter John Shiffman had received a tip-off, that broke the news on its Web site. According to an account in Editor and Publisher, editors at the Inquirer then began checking the Times' Web site for the paper's own story of its star reporter's release -- but it took hours for the Times to catch up and say what had happened in a case that critics say the Paper of Record should have been all over.

The Times' nighttime silence on the story served as a good indicator of the paper's general mood on the Miller case Friday. Management at the paper is saying nothing -- even, to judge from the paper's coverage of itself, to the reporters who work there. The Times has clammed up. Indeed, the day's most thorough account of what happened with Miller -- of why, after holding herself up as a martyr to press freedoms for months she suddenly decided to testify about her sources -- can be found in the Washington Post; as David Corn writes, the Times' account, which covers basically the same ground as the Post, is so convoluted it makes your head hurt.

Doesn't the New York Times owe its readers more than that? At this moment, the main story of Miller's release from jail is that we don't know the story -- every published account sparks more questions than answers. Yet there is one obvious way for one of the main players involved to clear some of the air: The Times could publish an editor's note or some other account documenting all it knows, and all it doesn't know, about the Plame case and its reporter's involvement in the matter, in much the same way Time magazine did after its reporter, Matthew Cooper, testified to the grand jury.

"Their audience would appreciate it if the paper was in position to say what its position was and why it took the position it did at the time," says Thomas Kunkel, dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. "In general readers appreciate when there's a controversial story if a paper tries to explain itself."

And all across the Web Friday -- from Salon's War Room to Dan Froomkin to Arianna Huffington -- commentators asked Times to explain itself. The questions generally boil down to this: If Miller has decided to recognize the validity of a waiver she received during a phone call last week with Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, why didn't she recognize a similar waiver Libby's lawyer says he offered Miller last year? Was she hiding something then? Is she hiding something now? What is the real story here -- for Miller, for the Times, and for the inquiry into the leak of Valerie Plame's identity?

As Huffington put it: Miller should "publish a full and truthful account of her involvement in Plamegate. And the New York Times must publish it on Page One. Without fear or favor. All the news that's fit to print. No ifs, ands, buts. And no more grandstanding statements from Arthur Sulzberger and Bill Keller."

Representatives for the Times declined Salon's interview requests, so it was impossible to say whether the paper was considering such a step. When reporters attempted to grill Miller on these details as she left court on Friday, she mostly sidestepped the questions.

If the Times doesn't want to publish an editor's account of what happened, there's another way it could elucidate its readers on the mysterious Miller saga -- by doing what it does best, unleashing a team of reporters to investigate the case. But so far, the Times own reporting on itself, says Jay Rosen, the New York University journalism professor and proprietor of the blog PressThink, has been inadequate, and instead of giving us answers, it "has created a real question mark." Douglas Jehl, the paper's main reporter on the case, seems to be on the right reportorial track, but in several stories he's written on the case it's evident that Jehl's access has been constrained by management at the paper, Rosen points out.

Reporting on your own company -- your own bosses -- is a difficult thing, Kunkel notes. But after the Jayson Blair scandal broke at the paper, the Times did an admirable job of digging it up by handing the investigation to a team of veteran reporters who were given inside access to the paper's operations. The Judy Miller story is certainly different from the Blair story; Miller didn't fabricate articles. But the mysterious circumstances surrounding her jailing and then her release cast a similar cloud over the paper's reputation and would seem to beg for some kind of internal inquiry, if only to satisfy the public's curiosity.

As it stands, though, the Times' actions don't seem leading down that path. Indeed, at the moment, the whole story "doesn't look explicable on its surface," Rosen says.

For instance, in reacting to the news of Miller's release, Rosen says he keeps thinking of a statement that Bill Keller, the Times' executive editor, made around the time Miller first went to jail -- Miller was prepared to be incarcerated as an act of "civil disobedience," Keller had said. Civil disobedience, Rosen points out, applies when you know what you're doing is illegal. While Miller may have acknowledged that the law compelled her to reveal her sources, by choosing jail she was saying that she wouldn't respect it. From the start, in other words, Miller and the Times saw this case as a way to make a statement about press freedoms; they took an absolutist view, one that held that any intrusion by the government into the relationship between a reporter and her source should be verboten.

So what's the paper's position now? Has it relented on its absolutist view about press freedoms? Is it more interested in keeping its reporters out of jail or getting to the bottom of the Plame case? "Some critical facts are missing," Rosen says. That's another way of saying we just don't know what in the world folks at the Times could be thinking right now.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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