Times editor: Miller may have misled us, but we made mistakes, too

Bill Keller issues an interim report on lessons learned from the paper's involvement in the Valerie Plame case.


Tim Grieve
October 22, 2005 12:23AM (UTC)

At the end of the New York Times' big reported piece on the Judy Miller affair last weekend, editor Bill Keller said it was "too early to judge" what the paper had just gone through.

It's apparently not "too early" anymore.

In a new memo to the Times staff, Keller says he has "done a lot of thinking -- and a lot of listening -- on the subject of what I should have done differently in handling our reporter's entanglement in the White House leak investigation." The highlights of his preliminary assessment:

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On the Times' faulty reporting on WMD: "I wish we had dealt with the controversy over our coverage of WMD as soon as I became executive editor. At the time, we thought we had compelling reasons for kicking the issue down the road. The paper had just been through a major trauma, the Jayson Blair episode, and needed to regain its equilibrium. It felt somehow unsavory to begin a tenure by attacking our predecessors ... So it was a year before we got around to really dealing with the controversy. At that point, we published a long editors' note acknowledging the prewar journalistic lapses, and -- to my mind, at least as important -- we intensified aggressive reporting aimed at exposing the way bad or manipulated intelligence had fed the drive to war ... By waiting a year to own up to our mistakes, we allowed the anger inside and outside the paper to fester. Worse, we fear, we fostered an impression that the Times put a higher premium on protecting its reporters than on coming clean with its readers. If we had lanced the WMD boil earlier, we might have damped any suspicion that this time, the paper was putting the defense of a reporter above the duty to its readers."

On Judy Miller's involvement in the Plame case: "I wish that when I learned Judy Miller had been subpoenaed as a witness in the leak investigation, I had sat her down for a thorough debriefing, and followed up with some reporting of my own. It is a natural and proper instinct to defend reporters when the government seeks to interfere in our work. And under other circumstances it might have been fine to entrust the details -- the substance of the confidential interviews, the notes -- to lawyers who would be handling the case. But in this case I missed what should have been significant alarm bells. Until Fitzgerald came after her, I didn't know that Judy had been one of the reporters on the receiving end of the anti-Wilson whisper campaign. I should have wondered why I was learning this from the special counsel, a year after the fact. (In November of 2003 Phil Taubman tried to ascertain whether any of our correspondents had been offered similar leaks. As we reported last Sunday, Judy seems to have misled Phil Taubman about the extent of her involvement.) This alone should have been enough to make me probe deeper In the end, I'm pretty sure I would have concluded that we had to fight this case in court ... But if I had known the details of Judy's entanglement with Libby, I'd have been more careful in how the paper articulated its defense, and perhaps more willing than I had been to support efforts aimed at exploring compromises."

On moving forward: Reporter "Dick Stevenson has expressed the larger lesson here in an e-mail that strikes me as just right: 'I think there is, or should be, a contract between the paper and its reporters. The contract holds that the paper will go to the mat to back them up institutionally -- but only to the degree that the reporter has lived up to his or her end of the bargain, specifically to have conducted him or herself in a way consistent with our legal, ethical and journalistic standards, to have been open and candid with the paper about sources, mistakes, conflicts and the like, and generally to deserve having the reputations of all of us put behind him or her. In that way, everybody knows going into a battle exactly what the situation is, what we're fighting for, the degree to which the facts might counsel compromise or not, and the degree to which our collective credibility should be put on the line.'"


Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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