Story location:

October 10, 2005

The Shimmer: Missing Data at the New York Times

"Whereas a week ago, I was calling it 'Judy Miller's New York Times' to emphasize how she seemed to be the actor-in-chief, I now think it's more than that: a bigger unknown is affecting things. Not only is the Times not operating properly, it's unable to say to readers: here's why we're not."

(New post alert, Oct. 14, The Hypothesis: Notes on the Judy Miller Situation; and Oct. 12: The Times at Bay: Armchair Critic Speculates)

When I talk about pictures in my mind I am talking, quite specifically, about images that shimmer around the edges. There used to be an illustration in every elementary psychology book showing a cat drawn by a patient in varying stages of schizophrenia. This cat had a shimmer around it. You could see the molecular structure breaking down at the very edges of the cat: the cat became the background and the background the cat, everything interacting, exchanging ions…. certain images shimmer for me. Look hard enough, and you can’t miss the shimmer. It’s there.
— Joan Didion

“The news comes in code, and mostly the silences speak.” Last week, that’s how I described what happens when the New York Times reports about Judith Miller and her time in jail. This is still the case, and people in journalism are noticing how weird it is. “I find the Times’ conduct at this point inexplicable,” said Michael Isikoff of Newsweek magazine on CNN’s Reliable Sources. (I was on the show with him; so was Glenn Reynolds. The transcript.)

The host, Howard Kurtz, pointed out that when Isikoff’s poorly sourced story on the desecration of the Koran ran in Newsweek, (see PressThink on it) the editors “did an investigation and set the record straight.” Has the New York Times “come close to doing that here?” he asked.

No, it hasn’t. And no one knows why. The official story seems to be: “Wait for the official story.” Until then, normal operations are suspended. We’re told that Miller is talking to the paper’s reporters, and a major article is on the way. We’re also told it’s been delayed. There is no date for it. The editors will barely talk about it. Meanwhile the story keeps heating up. As ABC’s The Note observed today (Oct. 10):

If you aren’t spending 90% of your waking time thinking about this, talking about this, and doodling on your jeans about this, then you aren’t a member of the Gang of 500, and you probably never will be.

The gang, of course, is the Washington press.

It was on Oct. 2, the Sunday after Judith Miller’s release from prison, that the lines went dead. Just when you thought its reporting might intensify—with Miller free, her testimony apparently completed— Times journalism fell away to almost nothing. Observing the absence of any coverage (or even horn-tooting commemoration) in the big Sunday paper, Arianna Huffington wrote, “Has the New York Times ceased journalistic operations?” A good question then, it’s become more apt since.

As I said on Reliable Sources, the paper “has lost the capacity to tell the truth about itself in this story.” (I also said it may yet recover.) What we don’t know is why the Times has gone into editorial default. Nor do we know when normal operations will be restored. The explanations given don’t make much sense. From what I have been able to learn, concerned journalists at the paper, former Times staffers, and peers in national journalism are as baffled, as alarmed as the bloggers and critics. And of course no Times person even thinks of going on-the-record with any doubts— a statement in itself.

But whereas a week ago, I was calling it “Judy Miller’s New York Times” to emphasize how she seemed to be the actor-in-chief, I now think it’s more than that: a bigger unknown is affecting things. There are missing data we don’t even sense yet. I wish I could say what “it” is, but I can’t because I don’t know enough.

What I know is in fragments.

Among them is the biggest new fact: The Times reported Oct. 7 that Judy Miller may have to talk to prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald again. Not good for transparency.

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.”

What combination of things prevents the New York Times from telling us more right now? Again we don’t know, and the Times isn’t telling. The only explanation we have is: “…the paper had been wary of revealing too much about the case for fear of compounding Ms. Miller’s legal problems.” It feels constrained because the Fitzgerald investigation goes on. Which works for why Miller is not divulging her testimony.

“I continue to watch developments in the Plame investigation with special interest,” Calame said in an e-mail to Salon. “If and when I have something to say, I will say it to the readers of the Times.” That makes no sense to me.

Even the fail safe mechanisms seem to have broken down. All the lessons in transparency that were learned after Jayson Blair have vanished from the building. Not only is the Times not operating properly, it’s unable to say to readers: here’s why we’re not operating properly. Meanwhile, Keller at a speech in Phoenix is dodging Miller questions, but dissing bloggers, the Wall Street Journal, Bill O’Reilly and the “journalism of assertion.” (And Arianna lets him have it.)

“They’re acting like the target of a scandal, ” said Glenn Reynolds in our Reliable Sources segment. “They’re not acting like the journalists who investigate a scandal.” True. The job of the editors is “to tell us what they know in the first instance, and they just haven’t been doing that.”

Like on Friday October 7, the day the Times told us Judy Miller was going back to talk with Fitzgerald again. It was the New York Observer that told us why. The Observer reported at its website 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.”

These would be notes from a conversation she had about Joseph Wilson from before Wilson’s July 6, 2003 op-ed appeared. Why was she talking to Libby about Wilson before Wilson spoke out publicly in the Times? Perhaps because, as I noted in my July 16 post, Rollback, Wilson began his crusade by trying to leak his criticisms of the Bush White House— to Nick Kristof of the Times, among others. When that didn’t work he went public in an op-ed piece for the New York Times. Maybe Miller found out about Wilson from Kristof, or from the editorial pages as they negotiated for his article. Or maybe that’s crazy and would never happen.

The point is this is another area where the Times has left things opaque. It did report on the missing notes the next day, Oct. 8, and there too something strange happened. Follow this with me:

Let’s say the Times told readers about Miller returning to the grand jury so as to indicate why it could not yet reveal all in that “vigorous reporting effort” Keller has promised. And let’s say the Times withheld from readers the reason why she had to return (the discovery of the missing notes) so as not to run afoul of the prosecutor, who doesn’t want his possible targets learning what he’s learning. This make tactical sense, even though it puts the immediate interests of Judy Miller ahead of the immediate interests of Times readers— a problem throughout the case.

The New York Observer does not have such worries. It finds out about the notes and reveals their existence. The Times has to keeps its readers somewhat up to date, so the next day it reports on the notes in “me too” fashion. Under the principle of don’t anger the prosecutor by divulging future testimony it would report only what the Observer did, and no more. Is this what we find? No.

“The notes,” said the Observer, “could significantly change the time frame of Miller’s involvement with Libby.” But the Observer’s account was vague about when they were written (“possibly in May 2003” it said.) For the possible targets of the investigation, the “when” is critical. But the Times does not show that kind of reticence. Instead, reporter David Johnston spills a few beans:

The meeting is expected to focus on newly discovered notes compiled by Ms. Miller that refer to a conversation she had with Mr. Libby on June 25, 2003, according to a lawyer in the case who did not want to be named because Mr. Fitzgerald has cautioned against discussing the case. Until now, the only conversations known to have occurred between Ms. Miller and Mr. Libby were on July 8 and 12, 2003.

Is fixing the date consistent with playing it safe for Judy, and not wanting to piss off the prosecutor? Clearly not. It’s consistent with basic Times journalism, but then leaving the discovered notes out of the Oct. 7 account isn’t basic journalism, so what gives? We don’t know.

The Observer hints at the storm brewing:

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.

At this rate it’s hard to see that big article Keller promised appearing before Oct. 28, when Fitzgerald is expected to wrap up his investigation. (UPDATE: Keller’s upbeat memo to staff, Oct. 11.) One of the trickier parts of the “vigorous reporting effort” is that Keller is a major participant in the story he has ordered, and (apparently) placed all his chips upon.

Which is why Steve Lovelady of CJR Daily said Keller should recuse himself from the editing of it. We don’t know if he has; we know that Jonathan (“We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times”) Landman was assigned to oversee the reporting of the big explanatory article. I was told so by Times people, and so was the Observer:

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.

That’s typical. As is the way the Times has become unreliable in reporting on itself. Said Editor & Publisher on Oct. 8: “N.Y. Times’ Scooped Again, This Time on Miller’s Notes.” And where were Miller’s notes hiding? The New York Times knows, but it’s Michael Isikoff of Newsweek who tells on Oct. 9:

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.

That’s the Washington bureau, where (from what I’ve heard) they’re none too thrilled with Judy Miller and getting beaten on their own news. We need to know a lot more about this “discovery.” (See David Corn and the indefatigable Tom Maguire on it.) Sounds to me like it came from the Landman team, which is digging into what Miller was doing in June and July of 2003.

Greg Mitchell’s column, “The Case of the Missing Notebook,” asks many good questions; and he picks up on a point I made in News Comes in Code (See also Jane Hamsher.)

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?

We have no answer to that. Times columnist Frank Rich—who writes about Washington scandals and earlier wrote about this one, as Stephen Spruiell reminds us—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. For certain Kurtz asked Bill Keller to appear on Sunday’s program, or to send another top editor. No dice. Again, it’s unclear why, since this would only help the Times.

I said in the “After” section of my last post that to begin to unravel the mystery of what’s going on here this Douglas Jehl story from July 27 is the starting point. It has a bland title: “Case of C.I.A. Officer’s Leaked Identity Takes New Turn.” The article compared the accounts of several reporters who had been entangled in the leak investigation. It said that a third source must exist, beyond Lewis Libby and Karl Rove. And it began an inquiry into a major unknown: what story was Judy Miller working on that would later bring her into Fitzgerald’s sights? We get a little information about it:

During that period, Ms. Miller was working primarily from the Washington bureau of The Times, reporting to Jill Abramson, who was the Washington bureau chief at the time, and was assigned to report for an article published July 20, 2003, about Iraq and the hunt for unconventional weapons, according to Ms. Abramson, who is now managing editor of The Times.

And then the door is shut, in a manner I have not seen before in a Times article. This to me is one of those “pictures that shimmer,” in Joan Didion’s phrase. Douglas Jehl of the Washington bureau presses the executive editor of the Times (his boss) for answers:

In e-mail messages this week, Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times, and George Freeman, an assistant general counsel of the newspaper, declined to address written questions about whether Ms. Miller was assigned to report about Mr. Wilson’s trip, whether she tried to write a story about it, or whether she ever told editors or colleagues at the newspaper that she had obtained information about the role played by Ms. Wilson.

If we knew more about that moment it might take us to the bigger unknowns. Maybe Keller and Freeman’s refusals can be explained by the ongoing investigation, but then how would we account for Jehl’s discomforting questions? Why was Keller’s Washington bureau asking Keller questions that Keller refused to answer, and why did Keller’s Times run a story with a stonewalling Bill Keller featured in it? We have just the shimmer, the point where the cat becomes the background and the background the cat.

The investigation Jehl was undertaking apparently got stopped in July; now it has to re-start itself. One assumes this is what Landman and his reporters are doing. One hopes they understand how much of the newspaper’s reputation is in their hands. Political philosopher Peter Levine explains why in his commentary on my last 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. People beyond the Times are starting to worry. I was watching in the green room when Gloria Borger of US News, sitting in Washington, “turned” to New York where Frank Rich was in the CNN studio: “I want to say to Frank,” she began. And a rare intensity came into her eyes. “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.”

She pronounced the words slowly and gave him a look I would call imploring.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

This also ran at the Huffington Post.

Keller: Everything’s Under Control. His memo to Times staff (Oct. 11) is at the Poynter site.

As we’ve told readers, once her obligations to the grand jury are fulfilled, we intend to write the most thorough story we can of her entanglement with the White House leak investigation. It’s a complicated story involving a large cast, and it has required a meticulous reporting effort — in part to chase down and debunk some of the myths kicked up by the rumor mill.

Judy has talked to our reporters already about her legal battle, but the story is incomplete until we know as much as we can about the substance of her evidence, and she is under legal advice not to discuss that until her testimony is completed. This may be frustrating to our armchair critics, and it is frustrating to all of us, but it is not unusual even for this investigation.

Read the rest of Keller’s note. The Times article about Miller’s second day of testimony is up. Nothing startling in it, but it corrects Michael Isikoff’s placement of Miller’s belatedly found notes. He reported them found in DC; they were in Manhattan.

Ms. Miller’s meeting with the prosecutor, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, focused on notes that she found in the Times newsroom in Manhattan after her appearance before the grand jury on Sept. 30. She took the notes during a conversation on June 23, 2003, with I. Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff.

Meanwhile, there are new details from Garbriel Sherman in the New York Observer, who is far ahead on this story.

Newsweek reported this week that the new material had been found at The Times’ Washington bureau. That struck many as odd, since Ms. Miller doesn’t really work out of the Washington bureau. Washington bureau staffers said that they were unaware of any notes turning up on their turf.

“She’s not been here since her confinement,” a Washington bureau staffer said. “We’ve been left out of this story, and then suddenly it seemed like the bureau was involved, when in fact we weren’t.”

A lawyer familiar with the case said the new material came from Ms. Miller’s own notebook, turned over by her legal team.

Sounds to me like Miller’s lawyers misled Isikoff. Or he screwed up. But that’s speculation. Read the rest.

Howard Kurtz, saying he’s “a little more sympathetic than some of the critics,” joins the case of the missing Times journalism in his Media Notes column, Oct. 12:

The newsgathering mission of the Times—the responsibility to report aggressively on a story about the outing of a CIA operative that has reached the highest levels of the White House—has collided with the understandably human need to protect its reporter. In such a circumstance, the journalism must come first. Judy Miller is free to either talk to the Times or not talk to the Times about what she knows, but the paper’s editors should disclose what they know, and as soon as they possibly can.

Keller reminded Kurtz that the Times has a “good track record of reporting on itself,” as with the Jayson Blair trauma. So it deserves the benefit of the doubt.

“It’s time to come clean.” So says Rem Rieder, longtime editor of American Journalism Review, rising from his armchair to tell Keller he isn’t buying. (Oct. 12, Web-only special):

The New York Times has been extremely reticent on the subject. And each passing day it does more damage to its credibility.

It’s impossible to imagine the Times being so silent on any other story of this magnitude. Of course, the paper and its controversial reporter are at the heart of the story. That can make covering it embarrassing and painful.

It also makes it essential.

Rieder says the Times is “back in old-school mode, ignoring the problem and hoping it will go away. But that just doesn’t cut it anymore. If you’re not sure, ask Dan Rather.” Someone should.

It’s an armchair insurrection! EditorsWeblog (an internationl forum) sees danger: “The truth will eventually come out. If it is not read first from the pages of the New York Times, there will be grave consequences for the credibility of the Gray Lady.”

Steve Lovelady, now im his armchair days at CJR Daily, but previously in the hot seat as managing editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, says in comments (Oct. 11):

Keller, who is well aware of the discontent among his own staff at the Times’ silence on this case, sent [the] memo to all newsroom employees at 6:46 this evening. His wording makes it fairly clear that the Times is still dancing to the tune dictated by Bob Bennett, one of Miller’s lawyers. (Key distinction: Bennett is a criminal lawyer; Floyd Abrams, Miller’s earlier lawyer, is a First Amendment lawyer.)

Arianna Huffington gets calls:

There are three Times reporters working on the promised “thorough story”: Don Van Natta, who intimately knows Washington, on the investigative side, Adam Liptak on the legal side, and Janny Scott doing the actual writing. “This is Topic A on 43rd Street,” a Times source tells me. “It’s the only thing anyone is talking about. And everyone is waiting on pins and needles.” A sign of the growing nervousness is that, in private conversations, Jill Abramson, who was Miller’s editor on her WMD stories, is now “trying to distance herself from the whole thing”.

Editor & Publisher Allan Wolper: How Judith Miller Lost My Support. His perspective hasn’t been explored much. Admirers of her decision to go to jail are mystified that she ended her civil disobedience, turned over her notes and testified. See also Josh Marshall on it.

Someone with shall we say an interest in the case e-mailed me with this question: how can the Libby Waiver that Judy Miller won apply to the new notes discovered from June? Didn’t the aspens-are-turning letter only apply to the July conversations?

You have to read Chris Lydon of Open Source Radio in the comments. “For hungry hounds of news and for ‘the rising generation,’ in the late Times saint James Reston’s phrase, the Times will never again be ‘the paper of record,’ as we used to call it, or the first draft of history.”

Howard Kurtz, host of CNN’s Reliable Sources, e-mails PressThink (Oct. 11): “I did indeed ask Keller if he or an editor of his choosing would come on the show, and he declined.” Mystifying decision (for now…)

And for the sluether in you: See Mark Kleiman channeling Jane Hamsher: Patrick Fitzgerald’s Mousetrap. Posits that Fitzgerald caught Miller committing perjury. But also see Talk Left’s Jeralyn Merrit, Judy Miller and Her June Notes.

That same Jeralyn Merrit comments on my last entry, where I said the Times had slipped behind the Washington Post:

I think when Fitzgerald’s investigation is over, and it becomes clear that Judith Miller didn’t go to jail because she is Saint Judy, protecting the First Amendment rights of journalists everywhere, but to protect her own career and sources, so no one would learn just how embedded she is with the Bush Admininstration, the Times will face a choice. It can continue to stand by Judy and settle for being Avis instead of Hertz. Or it can acknowledge the errors of its ways, promise to reform and try to work its way back to being number one.

Psst… Author and former FEED editor Steven Johnson is joining the NYU Journalism faculty. Very exciting news. Welcome SBJ. He wrote Everything Bad Is Good For You.

Mickey Kaus at Slate on the Times columnists remaining mute about Judy Miller:

Is this eerie collective silence the product of direct censorship or self-censorship? And if it’s self-censorship, as is likely, isn’t that worse? If you avoid saying things you think might annoy the boss, you may avoid saying more things than if the boss makes it clear, through direct communication, what actually annoys him and what doesn’t. That’s one reason there was more self-censorship when I worked at Newsweek under the benign, tolerant and non-interfering Katharine Graham than at the New Republic under the contentious and opinionated Martin Peretz. You never worried that Marty might be privately upset with you.

Jeff Jarvis in The Guardian (Oct. 10): “The internet is changing the nature of secrets.”

In a post called Dramatic Tension, Billmon speculates that before long Judy Miller and the New York Times will divorce. I agree with that. I think it is very likely she has written her last article for the Times, although the editors may allow her a first person thing about her ordeal. He also points to a passage that struck me, too. It’s from Sydney Schanberg’s piece in the Village Voice calling on Miller to “come clean.”

Even her supporters are asking for answers. On September 30, one of her most stalwart admirers, Lucy Dalglish, director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, was asked during an online chat hosted by The Washington Post: “So what are the three biggest mysteries/questions that YOU would like Judy Miller to explain?” At the top of her list, Dalglish put this question: “Was Scooter Libby your source for information about Valerie Plame, or were you HIS source?”

Some doodler at a conference drew this picture of me. Caught a break: I’m wearing pants.

Here’s how “emptywheel” at The Next Hurrah gets started in an Oct. 9 post, Jill Abramson, What Was Judy Working on in July 2003?

Those who have been following me following Judy Miller for a while will know that I am obsessed with learning about Judy’s status in July (and June, as it turns out) when the whole Plame thing was developing.

Study note to edu-bloggers, especially Will Richardson (and users at weblogg-ed) and Jenny D and her crowd. Look into emptywheel’s phrase, “obsessed with learning about…” and the proof of that: the post itself. I think it tells us something about blogging “into” public argument and The News. Blogging as stylized learning, done out of a personal obsession with public fact. In this case: Judy’s status in July (and June…) Read how “the NYT has backed themselves into a corner…” Fascinating, and funny. Highly recommended.

Earlier at PressThink (on the leak investigation and the press):

Posted by Jay Rosen at October 10, 2005 9:19 PM