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October 4, 2005

News Comes in Code: Judy Miller's Return to the Times

Just one man's opinion, but now is a good time to say it: The New York Times is not any longer--in my mind--the greatest newspaper in the land. Nor is it the base line for the public narrative that it once was. Some time in the last year or so I moved the Washington Post into that position...

… The Post, I believe, is our great national newspaper now; the Times is number two, with the Wall Street Journal close behind. Still a strong fleet. With a new ship in the lead perhaps it will sail to unexpected places.

It was a long time in the making, this change in my half-conscious rankings of the great players in news. The Web has a lot to do with it, for the Post has been bolder, more willing to experiment online, less hung up. (Plus it hired this guy, a key move.) TimesSelect has something to do with it, too, for the reasons I explored in an earlier post. The breakdown in controls in reporting Weapons of Mass Destruction is, of course a factor— along with earlier episodes: Jayson Blair, Wen Ho Lee. There’s Paul Krugman’s correction trauma. It’s an accumulation of things; the Post is just more agile, better able to adjust to a changing world, and to the exploding marketplace in news and views.

The switch happened a while ago, but I only realized it last night, as I was about to read Katharine Seelye’s account of Judith Miller’s return to the newsroom of the New York Times (Oct. 4). When I clicked on the story about 1:00 am I thought to myself… They’re not up to it. And while it may seem strange to some PressThink readers, I had never really felt that way before in reading a news story in the New York Times.

On plenty of occasions since I began reading the paper (in college) I would say to myself after finishing a Times article, “nah, I don’t trust it.” Often I have waved an imaginary hand at what I had just read, as if to say: get out of here with that! There were columnists whose way of arriving at opinions I didn’t trust, and periods when I lost trust in the editorial pages entirely. But I held to my assumption as a news reader (and paying subscriber) that the New York Times would always try to tell me what it knew when it covered a story, and it would always try to cover the stories it knew were news.

Fairness, you know, is a two-way medium. If I am not fair in my expectations, I will never find the Times fair as a news provider. As a critic I have found it more effective to hold the Times to the elevated (and self-conscious) public interest standard it sets for itself, which does in the end mean buying into “the newspaper of record” mythology, so as to point out where the newspaper and its record fall short.

Clicking on to Seelye’s article last night, I realized that I didn’t expect the Times to try to tell me what it knew. I expected what I said Sunday: it’s Judy Miller’s New York Times. She deals with it as she pleases. On Sunday, Oct. 3, the Times had not tried to tell us what it knew, prompting Howard Kurtz of the Post to say: “I was hoping I would wake up this morning and see in my ‘New York Times’ [a] 5,000-word piece by Judith Miller telling us everything that was involved. She has no more legal liability here. Matt Cooper did it.”

And Bill Keller could have ordered “it.” But Judy does as she pleases.

I like how Kurtz said he was “hoping.” There is something very basic to Times journalism about this kind of hope, which I shared with Kurtz that day. “They’re the New York Times,” we probably thought to ourselves. They’re going to tell us what they know— now that they can tell us. After all, we have been waiting while Miller’s ordeal wound down. “No piece in the paper today,” said Kurtz on “Reliable Sources.” He was surprised, and seemed a little sad too. The day before he had reported in Media Notes on frustration among Miller’s colleagues at the Times:

“People are angry,” one staffer said. “Was this a charade on her part for martyrdom, or a real principle? She wanted to resurrect herself from the WMD thing,” the staffer said, a reference to Miller stories about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction that turned out to be wrong.

Actually, I don’t buy it that she wants to “make-up for WMD failures,” and rehabilitate herself. The key to understanding Miller is to realize: she doesn’t think she failed one bit in her reporting before the Iraq war. (I explain here and here, if you’re really interested. Okay, one more.)

So on Sunday, day of reflection, no one in the Times was reflecting on Miller, though according to the editorial page history had been made that week. “No newspaper reporter has ever spent so much time in custody to defend the right to protect confidential sources.” Sounds Week-in-Reviewish to me.

On Monday (normally a big day for media coverage in the Times) more nothing. And in Tuesday’s “Miller returns” story very little beyond the official narrative, summarized quite well by the American Prospect’s Greg Sargent: “that Miller is a Gandhi-like figure driven solely by principle and unswayed by the worldly discomforts of prison, and that the Times is her steadfast defender.” And I don’t think its Katharine Seelye’s fault; almost any Times-person writing that article would have stuck to the known script. That’s the only safe thing to do. You get the message from the photo too: hero’s welcome.

So limited and empty and “stiff” is the official story about Judy Miller that some are reminded of the old Soviet style in public communication. News comes in code, and mostly the silences speak. Steve Lovelady of CJR Daily said so:

Our colleague Mike Hoyt has noted, reading the Times about the Times lately is a lot like reading Pravda about the Kremlin 20 years ago: You better bring to the task a microscope, a magic marker and an ability to read not just between the lines but between the words.

For example: The only quotes in Seelye’s piece are from Judy Miller, returning home, and Bill Keller, welcoming her back. There’s your official narrative at work. The staff does not speak. Incredulous professional peers are silent. There is no debate out there worth bringing into the account. No book deal the Times can find out about, although Miller gets to say she’s “unsure” about doing a book about her ordeal.

Pulling back a bit from that story, we’re supposed to believe, I guess—no one’s told me—that Maureen Dowd (who appears on Wednesdays and Saturdays) doesn’t see any column-writing promise in the “grandstanding” charge, or the “one-third of a martini in a gorgeous glass, along with a fruit tray,” brought to Miller by Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., or the “meal I want my husband to prepare,” or the big battle of wits—and totally conflicting stories—between Lewis Libby’s lawyer Joseph Tate and the First Amendment sage Floyd Abrams. No column material there, right? (On Wednesday, Oct. 5, she wrote about women in the Bush White House.)

With many unanswered questions, some of which only the Times can address, being itself a huge actor in the drama, the newspaper has gone into editorial default, as if a plea of nolo contendere had been entered at Supreme News Court in the matter of Judy Miller, prosecutor Fitzgerald and the sputtering New York Times.

Notice that in her first few days out of jail Miller could not manage to: 1.) compose a statement for the Times that reveals anything, 2.) answer a single question from reporters that reveals anything, 3.) say a thing about her grand jury testimony that reveals anything, although it is legal to do so and Matt Cooper of Time magazine did, or 4.) admit that Lewis Libby was her source, even though letters from Libby to Miller, and from her lawyer to his lawyer were posted for all to see by the New York Times! (She did it admit it Monday, four days after the whole world knew. This is journalism?)

From what I understand of the code that binds reporters, if you have big news because it happens you are a participant in the news, then you phone the desk because you think of your colleagues and they deserve the scoop. Of course you answer questions from the press when it’s time for that because you’re a source and they can’t write their stories without you. You behave with an awareness that you’re usually in their position, trying to squeeze information out of harried people, who sometimes just want to go home and have a quiet meal. You remain a journalist, even though you have to operate as a source, and defend your interests.

Judy Miller has behaved like she understood not one word of this.

Miller is a longtime friend of the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. They socialize. It’s not a scandal, but it is a fact. Sulzberger has stood behind her in a show of support that anyone watching can see is personal, and strongly-felt. She has the full support of Executive Editor Bill Keller, who has said (more or less) she’s a First Amendment hero— not a martyr, Keller would say, but a hero in the sense of acting with exemplary courage and personal conviction in civil disobedience to the law.

Colliding ominously with these two facts are several others. The weight of professional opinion—once solidly behind Judy Miller, for a long time split 60/40 for her—is now decisively against. (I would think reader opinion is similarly thumbs down.) Most journalists seem baffled by her explanations, and dubious about the waiver that wasn’t, then was. They do not see her cause as necessarily just.

Within the Times, I don’t know what the feelings are, but it isn’t possible that people there are insulated from the above facts. They know what their peers in the press think. The Washington bureau, in my opinion, has been humiliated by the plea of nolo contendere. And I doubt that I am the only one who sees it that way.

I don’t expect the editorial default to last. It’s possible that once the news coverage, column-writing and self-examination starts to flow (next week? the week after that?) the Times will recover its journalistic senses, and get back some of the reputation points that are expiring because it’s become Judy Miller’s Times.

The official story now is wait for the official story, the big piece of explanatory journalism Bill Keller has said will happen. “A full account of Ms. Miller’s case,” in Seelye’s words.

“I know that you and our readers still have a lot of questions about how this drama unfolded,” he told the staff members. He said the paper had been wary of revealing too much about the case for fear of compounding Ms. Miller’s legal problems, but added, “Now that she’s free, we intend to answer those questions to the best of our ability in a thoroughly reported piece in the pages of The New York Times, and soon. We owe it to our readers, and we owe it to you, our staff.”

“In an interview after her appearance, Ms. Miller said she would cooperate with the newspaper’s reporters,” Seelye says. That would be a switch, huh? “In the interview, she declined to reveal what she had told the grand jury.” Oh, no switch. Says Lovelady: “So much for cooperation.”

You see at Judy Miller’s New York Times, Judy decides when she cooperates. There is a code operating here but I assure you it is not the one shared among most reporters. (As I type this I learn that she will be on CNN with Lou Dobbs tonight. Update: Transcript.)

After watching the short video of Miller speaking in the newsroom, and reading the coverage again, it’s clear what her story is for the weeks ahead: Judy Miller won significant victories for all journalists with her decision to go to jail for her principles. Therefore she made the right decision, and so did Sulzberger and Keller by backing her.

The first victory she claims is: “the blanket waiver is dead.” Meaning no one in the press will believe it any more and testify when a source gives a blanket waiver to all journalists. Miller showed what a sham it was, forcing Libby to give her a personal waiver, over the phone, and demonstrate that he really, really meant it.

The second victory is that, though she was forced to submit her notes, she and the Times got to redact the notes to remove all references to other cases, other sources, rather than have a third party—neither the prosecutor nor the journalist—do the redacting. That will somehow become a precedent, she suggests.

She is very proud of these victories. “I got things that no other journalist has ever gotten out of a process like this.” Her reference point is not what the press may have won or lost from the state, but what Miller got compared to other journalists who tried it. There’s your First Amendment hero.

Miller claims that Fitzgerald was not willing to limit her testimony to one source and one story, as he did for others, and Lewis Libby did not give her a personal waiver, as he did for others, so she could not negotiate a way out, as did others. But then the pressure of her public stand forced Fitzgerald to relent and Libby to relent via negotiations. And so, her victories won, she ended her jail stay and testified.

That’s Judy’s story and she will stick to it.

Whether the Times can free itself, remember its loyalty to readers, and tell the larger story that incorporates and corrects hers is… totally unclear. Frankly, the organization may not be up to it. But this doesn’t matter to what I said at the start. There’s a new flagship paper, and just as the Times needed the Post to steam alongside and challenge it, the Post will need a strong New York Times to remain true.

So I hope it goes back to being the New York Times one day soon.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

I was a guest on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” Sunday (Oct. 9) to talk about the Judith Miller mess with host Howard Kurtz, plus Glenn Reynolds and Michael Isikoff of Newsweek. Transcript is here. Excerpts:

JAY ROSEN: I think “The New York Times” has lost the capacity to tell the truth about itself in this story. It’s completely overidentified itself and the majesty of the institution with Judy Miller and what its own people describe as her personal decision making… It isn’t the First Amendment drama that they think it is. It’s a much more complicated, darker and ultimately dubious tale.

GLENN REYNOLDS: They’re acting like the target of a scandal. They’re not acting like the journalists who investigate a scandal.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: I just find the Times’ conduct at this point inexplicable. There is nothing to prevent Judy Miller from detailing chapter and verse, not only exactly what she told the grand jury, but exactly what she and Scooter Libby talked about in all their conversations at this point.

Roll tape! Take Notes! First, the Times reports Oct. 7 that Judy Miller may have to talk to Fitzgerald again:

Bill Keller, the executive editor of The Times, said Ms. Miller had been cautioned by her lawyers not to discuss the substance of her grand jury testimony until Mr. Fitzgerald finished questioning her.

“We have launched a vigorous reporting effort that I hope will answer outstanding questions about Judy’s part in this drama,” Mr. Keller said. “This development may slow things down a little, but we owe our readers as full a story as we can tell, as soon as we can tell it.”

The New York Observer reports—this is the same day—that “lawyers for Miller have turned over an additional, previously unreported batch of notes on the New York Times reporter’s conversations with I. Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby to prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald.” These would be notes from a conversation she had about Joseph Wilson from before Wilson’s op-ed appeared. Why? We get no info on that:

The presence of the undisclosed set of notes comes as the Times is seeking to quell internal and external criticism over a lack of transparency in the Miller case. In today’s Times, executive editor Bill Keller said Miller’s potential return trip to meet with Fitzgerald could further delay the Times’ plans to publish an account of the Miller saga. Deputy managing editor Jonathan Landman, who has been tapped to edit the report, declined to discuss the state of the paper’s Miller reporting.

“I’m not going to talk about it,” he said.

Which adds up to: Editor & Publisher, Oct. 8: ‘N.Y. Times’ Scooped Again, This Time on Miller’s Notes. Indeed.

But where did Miller’s notes come from? The New York Times knows, but it’s Michael Isikoff of Newsweek who tells: “a notebook was discovered in the paper’s Washington bureau, reflecting a late June 2003 conversation with Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis (Scooter) Libby, about Wilson and his trip to Africa, says one of the lawyers.” Discovered in the Washington bureau, where they’re none too thrilled with Judy Miller? Hmmmm.

Now see Greg Mitchell’s The Case of the Missing Notebook. Mitchell picks up on a point I made in this post:

Why have the Times’ seven hard-hitting weekday opinion columnists remained virtually silent, pro or con, on their colleague Judith Miller throughout this ordeal? Conflicted? Afraid to appear disloyal? Or discouraged from commenting?

Well, Frank Rich was also on “Reliable Sources” Sunday. Kurtz could have asked him: “Frank, why haven’t you written a column on Miller’s release and the questions left hanging?” But he didn’t. Gloria Borger: “I want to say to Frank, we journalists who have been covering this story, we are all awaiting Judy Miller’s piece in The New York Times. We would like to read it, too.” And she gave him a look I would call imploring.

For the sluether in you… PressThink has a tip. To begin to unravel the mystery of what may be going on with Judy Miller, what should be going on (but isn’t), and what started to go on, but got stopped… this story is the starting point. (Mentioned by several I have talked to in the last few days.)

See the bland title: “Case of C.I.A. Officer’s Leaked Identity Takes New Turn.” And the date: July 28. Study it as you would a map. Ask every question you can. You have your assignment: go slueth.

Wanna head start? The New York Observer team: Cool Hand Judy. Important.

“Time for Miller to come clean” says Sydney Schanberg in the Village Voice: “She has to do it for the public she says she is responsible to, for her colleagues, and for the Times, whose reputation is also at stake here.” He’s a former Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter for the Times.

This is a very interesting column, a gem in its way: Judith Miller and the myth of the ‘liberal media establishment: “We are a different breed, journalists. Sometimes for better. Sometimes for worse. But a different breed nonetheless. And one whose actions cannot be explained in the simplistic terms of liberal vs. conservative.” It’s by Cindi Ross Scoppe of The State in Columbia, SC.

Peter Levine comments on this post:

The implicit deal that the Times offers is this: We will cozy up to the power-brokers, but we will do it in your interests, so that we can keep you informed about their wheeling and dealing. When the Times becomes a power-broker itself, the deal comes into question. At that moment, the editors should understand that their whole justification is at stake, and they should rush to serve the public’s “right to know.” Failure to do so raises fundamental questions about the value of the New York Times that go far beyond any cases of misreporting or run-of-the-mill bias.

Exactly. Far beyond.

Michael Cader of Publishers Lunch, the widely-read industry newsletter, wrote a very smart post in comments. First he says Arianna Huffington distorted what she was told to produce her report of a book deal for Judy Miller with Simon & Schuster. Then he says that “in our little world” (publishing biz) “not only is the [Times] not the best newspaper in the country, it’s a second-rate paper, committing errors both of commission and omission on a regular basis.”

The notion of the Times’ greatness is legacy more than something they earn today. It’s still a paper that employs some great reporters and produces some great work—but they would like to remain in a paradigm in which their very best work gives institutional authority (a free pass if you will) to everything they do, and I think that’s where we have all gotten smarter.

He’s on to something there. It’s not that the Times isn’t great, sometimes— okay, a lot. It’s the assumption that great authority is bestowed “…because it’s the Times” that no longer operates. Read Cader.

Arianna Huffington replies to Cader in comments:

At a time when Team Miller was desperately trying to deflect criticism of her, and circling the wagons around the story that Miller is a journalistic martyr, the news that she was cashing in on her newfound notoriety was, to say the least, not part of the game plan. Is it any wonder that Miller, the Times, and Simon and Schuster would go into big-time damage control mode?

At HP, Arianna rounds up recent links to other blog postings about Judy Miller.

Mark Glaser in Online Journalism Review: Is Yahoo public enemy No. 1 for Big Media?

“I think we’re missing the story if we keeping asking: Is this new player or that new player (bloggers, citizen journalists, Yahoo) going to replace the big news providers?” Rosen told me via e-mail. “I’m convinced that journalists love that question — will we be replaced? — because it’s actually more comforting than the alternative: Who’s in a position to realize the potential advantages of the Web, and bring new them forcefully into news and editorial? To me the answer, right now, is clear: Yahoo is in a better position. That’s not solved by starting some blogs.”

It’s true: I told him that. Related post is my Some Bloggers Meet the Bosses From Big Media.

Hey, PressThink made’s Blog 100 list. Cool. Thanks.

Over at Buzzmachine Jeff Jarvis reacts with some questions for me: “What Jay doesn’t explore yet — and I hope he does — is the question of what makes a great newspaper today. What is that definition? Has it changed? Should it?…What is the proper ambition for a newspaper today?”

I’ll have to think about it, Jeff.

“In my view, it’s a national tragedy.” Gene Lyons, a critic of the New York Times coverage of the Clintons in the 1990s and co-author, with Joe Conason, of The Hunting of the President: The Ten–Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton, says in comments. “I’ve really enjoyed your pieces on Judith Miller, and learned from them. Sadly, I find the NYT’s collective behavior quite in keeping with its institutional character.” Read the rest where he explains why.

Also in comments, Andrew Tyndall of the Tyndall Report on how the unit of valuation is shifting to “the story,” not the newscast or newspaper.

Jon Carrol of the San Francisco Chronicle says it doesn’t add up. “I am trying to construct an explanation that makes sense of the facts as we know them, and it seems clear that we do not know all the facts.” He concludes:

And another thing: How did Judith Miller get to be the martyr in all this? It was, after all, Valerie Plame who got caught in the cross fire between a vindictive White House and an angry diplomat. Someone might spare a thought for her. And if you want journalistic martyrs — well, there are a whole bunch of them in Iraq and Afghanistan right now, risking their lives to tell the story of their wars. Those are the journalists I stand in awe of.

Lisa Williams points to an intriguing post by Dave Winer about Martin Nisenholtz and Judith Miller from Oct., 2004.

I’m not sure what to say about the Lou Dobbs interview with Judy Miller. A cynical term for it would be “love fest.” Dobbs: “All of us in this craft respect you immensely and are deeply grateful to you for so doing. It’s an immense sacrifice.” He expressed his anger at Fitzgerald, but did not ask Miller any challenging questions. She said she went to jail for the public’s right to know. I guess “fluff” is the word I would use.

In comments, Geneva Overholser, who worked at the New York Times and was ombudsman at the Washington Post, disputes my re-ranking of the two. “This piece sounds like the thinking of a New Yorker who reads the Post mostly online.”

Derek Rose, journalist and blogger, doesn’t agree with me about the Times and the Post. Again he doesn’t agree with me.

This is what I love about blogging: the gentleness. Dean Esmay writes…

Jay, please hear this in the gentlest possible voice when I say these words: they’ve been a ridiculously unreliable voice for a long time now. To “get back to being the New York Times,” they’ve got to go way, way, waay back before they can be considered a real news organization again… But if I find out about an important story, even if the New York Times has it first (which ain’t that often anymore), I automatically check the Washington Post or Reuters or UPI because I know there’s a good chance the New York Times’ report won’t be trustworthy. They haven’t been the paper of record for a long time Jay.

Dean: Thanks for your post. Actually I didn’t exactly say they were… “the” newspaper of record, which I called a mythology. I said I found that newspaper-of-record stuff to be the best standard by which to interpret and criticize the Times. The best tool to communciate with.

Christopher Fotos at PostWatch responds:

Agreed that the Post is far ahead of the Times (and probably any other big mainstream paper) in its online production: has many online chats every day with reporters, editors, and guests; it links to bloggers in that partnership with Technorati; it’s trying different kinds of house blogs; it has developed online-only columnists that are developing their own distinct audiences (and is really a separate entity from the newspaper.)

But, he says, “it has the same cultural and political biases as ever.”

Patterico: “Jay Rosen says the Washington Post is a better paper than the New York Times. I’ve been saying that for ages.” Yes, well that just shows the importance of sticking to things, Patterico.

One of the more disturbing parts of “Judy Miller’s New York Times” is that the newspaper earlier went through a trauma involving an out-of-control journalist, and the isolation of top management (Jayson Blair.) It made a major effort to learn those lessons. See PressThink, The Siegal Report, a Triumph of Self Reflection at the New York Times. So it’s not like this is all new…

Finally, Bertrand Pecquerie at EditorsWeblog (an international site) comments on this post: “My conclusion: The New York Times must react very quickly to avoid any parallelism between how the newspaper managed the Blair scandal and how it deals with the Miller affair.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at October 4, 2005 6:59 PM