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October 12, 2005

The Times at Bay: Armchair Critic Speculates

"Everything has to wait until the moment when Judy 'can be expected to tell what happened,' as Landman so carefully put it. When it comes and she still refuses the hierarchy will turn a whiter shade of pale. Key people will then know their investment in Miller went terribly wrong."

(… New post alert. Oct. 14, The Hypothesis: Notes on the Judy Miller Situation)

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.

Bill Keller to New York Times staff, Oct. 11.

There were some small breaks today in the matter of missing journalism at the New York Times. They came on the website of the New York Observer, where reporter Gabriel Sherman is starting to get replies to some of the most glaring questions.

We learn several things from the Observer’s latest. It says (as the Times story did this morning) that the notes Judith Miller belatedly “found” were not in the Washington bureau. Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff had reported otherwise, citing “lawyers close to the case.”

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.

“We’ve been left out of this story” is a glimpse into what’s going on at the Times. Nearly everyone feels that way— including readers.

Next we learn about the columnists failing to comment, which has been so striking to observers. Sherman got editorial page editor Gail Collins to at least address it. Hooray!

So far, since Ms. Miller’s decision to leave jail and testify, the opinion and news pages have been in harmony—- if silence counts as harmony. As speculation about the case burns up the blogosphere, none of the Times columnists have weighed in on the subject.

Ms. Collins said there’s no edict barring the Op-Ed crew from writing about Ms. Miller.

“They choose their own subjects,” Ms. Collins said, “and they’re edited only by a copy editor. I have no idea what they will write until I see it in the paper.”

No edict. They choose. So the muting of the columnists isn’t planned or ordered, it just is— harmonically. (None wants to be embarrassed by facts that have yet to come out: that’s my guess. See this Oct. 14 account for confirmation.)

In another first, Sherman got Jonathan Landman, the editor in charge of the big investigation of Miller, to break radio silence and communicate with Times readers— via the website of the Observer. An indirect method, but better than nothing.

Deputy managing editor Jon Landman—who is overseeing a Miller-case reporting team that includes Adam Liptak, Janny Scott and Don Van Natta Jr.—said that the delay is a matter of full access, not permission.

“What Bill is talking about is not when we can write a story,” Mr. Landman said. “What he is talking about is when [Ms. Miller] can be expected to tell what happened.”

The Times is handling the situation the way that other publications caught up in Mr. Fitzgerald’s investigation handled their own reporters’ cases, Mr. Landman said.

“What is holding up the Times reporting on this is Judy’s continued legal entanglements,” he continued. “The reporting goes on, but the publication of the story that you’re talking about will be determined when she’s out from contempt. It’s the same as [Time magazine’s] Matt Cooper. When the contempt citation was served, he didn’t write something. Once it was lifted, he wrote something. And Time also did something with it.”

This appears to be the official story: the Times is following some kind of established procedure. It’s doing no worse than Time did on disclosure. Sherman points out one difference: “Mr. Cooper didn’t surprise anyone by coming up with an extra set of notes after his grand-jury appearance.” He closes with the frustration of the staff with the Times at bay:

None of us is aware what the story is,” one Times staffer said. “We’re awaiting information just like our readers are. There are a huge number of mysteries that need to be resolved. The paper needs to resolve it for their readers— and staff.”

Which leads to my own speculation. Ordinarily I avoid that; here, since the Times has decided to say as little as possible, it is more justified. What follows, then, is not what someone told me; and I didn’t read it in the papers. It’s not information, or journalism, but at best informed guesswork— a deduction from things we know. I like emptywheel’s phrase, “My latest refined scenario.”

In my latest refined scenario…

Warning: This is just armchair speculation, okay? Could be quite wrong.

The New York Times is in a suspended state, editorially speaking. In fact, the entire organization—with the exception of a few lawyers, a few top executives, a few top editors, plus Jon Landman and his crew—is in the dark about Miller, uncertain of what a full investigation will find, unwilling to speak in the absence of knowledge now being gathered, fearful that the emerging story could be devastating to:

Which of these will be toppled by the end of the month? Which will be standing? No one knows. Any or all could be in ruins when the facts come out. Or none. This creates anxiety. (Again, I’m engaged in speculation.)

Baffled and frustrated journalists

What might look like a conscious decision to curtail normal news coverage, or “muzzle” the columnists is nothing of the kind. There are no orders to cease and desist. Nor is there any invitation to examine the Miller case with the tools a great newspaper has available. There is only the suspended state, which includes silence from the top, reporting talent that has been sidelined, and supervisors who are themselves in the dark.

No one wants to make a move that would break the stillness. On the whole, the staff is baffled and frustrated, feeling out of the loop, and worried that Miller was involved in things even the people in charge don’t know about or comprehend yet.

At this point Judith Miller is a deeply unpopular figure in the newsroom, even with the sacrifice of her freedom for 85 days, an act which most Times-people identified with and respected at first. It is painful to learn that their instinct to side with Miller when she was jailed and defiant—a form of loyalty—may blow up in their faces. They wonder how the Times got itself into a situation where Judy Miller and her attorneys seem to be calling the shots for the newspaper-at-large.

Judith Miller is a Washington journalist for the Times, but she isn’t under the control of the Times Washington bureau— or a “member” of it. She’s attached to the investigative unit in New York. The bureau (“We’ve been left out of this story”) feels isolated; it has been ignored and de-fanged by the confounding logic of this case. Anything new it might dig up could complicate Judy Miller’s trials, or undermine the positions (and prior statements) of the people in charge of the newspaper.

What the reporters in the DC bureau cannot do is report on the Judy Miller story without fear or favor. It’s killing them. But what recourse do they have… complain to the publisher? He bet the First Amendment house on Judy Miller.

Miller’s non-cooperation

Miller has said she will cooperate with the Times reporters, but not yet… In reality (I speculate) they are getting nothing material from her, just as we are getting nothing. And nothing is all they are ever going to get. The full extent of her refusal to tell the Times what she knows has not been admitted yet, for it would be an ominous sign. That her cooperation is right around the corner helps maintain the fiction that Keller’s “vigorous reporting effort” would be before us, were it not for the prosecutor’s continued interest in Miller.

Officially, everything has to wait until the moment when Judy “can be expected to tell what happened,” as Landman so carefully put it. When it comes and she still refuses the hierarchy will turn a whiter shade of pale. Key people will then know their investment in Miller went terribly wrong. That is when telling the truth to readers will be the only option.

Because she won’t cooperate, she won’t be allowed to do what Matt Cooper did: write a first person account. You may have noticed that no one associated with the Times speaks of Miller publishing her story later on. (Which blows the parallel to Time and Cooper.) I think they know it’s not going to happen in their newspaper.

Thus the team of Jonathan Landman, Don Van Natta, Adam Liptak and Janny Scott will have to tell Miller’s story without Miller’s help— and in a sense “against” her. No one had planned for this, and it is part of the reason for the sputtering and the delay. Especially as her story crumbles, Miller has no interest in helping the Times reporters investigate her.

Her non-cooperation with the reporting team is related, of course, to the incomplete account she gave to special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald. Because of that she still has legal counsel advising her to keep quiet, and because of that the Times says it can’t report her story. This is the state of suspension, where only the lawyers appear to be in charge. (See the updates below in “After.”)

The risk in publishing

Problem is there’s no telling whether Patrick Fitzgerald will turn up facts devastating to the New York Times, truth the Times was itself unable to discover. Therefore there is a substantial risk in publishing the big investigation Keller has promised until Fitzgerald shows what he has, especially as Miller becomes a non-cooperating journalist. What if Fitzgerald has the goods and the Times doesn’t?

Jeralyn Merrit refined one scenario: “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.”

And if something like that happened, it’s going to mean the Times was far too “embedded” with the Administration. Times people know it, and dread it. (Editor & Publisher boss Greg Mitchell can explain why.) This kind of awareness has created the suspended state. No one decreed that Times journalism would go missing. No one enforces it, either. The suspension of journalism isn’t debated among decision-makers because it isn’t a “decided” state at all— it’s a default one.

If there is any strong current of hope it has an incredibly simple source: that Times journalism will win out in the end, despite all the coming losses, because in the end Jonathan Landman, Don Van Natta, Adam Liptak and Janny Scott will be able to tell the truth.

Reminder: That wasn’t “news,” just an armchair critic’s speculation.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

(Oct. 14) The Times public editor speaks. Now is the time.

This was posted before the Wall Street Journal’s report on Miller’s second day of additional testimony, which contains some facts favorable to my speculation: Miller will not cooperate with the journalism to come. Key news: lifting of the contempt order.

“I am delighted that the contempt order has been lifted, and Judy is now completely free to go about her great reporting as a very principled and honorable reporter,” said Robert Bennett, Ms. Miller’s attorney.

The lifting of the order is significant, because it opens the door for Ms. Miller to disclose details of her story and her testimony to the Times, which has been criticized for not being more forthcoming on what it knows about its reporter’s involvement in the case. Bill Keller, executive editor of the Times, said on Tuesday that once Ms. Miller’s “obligations to the grand jury are fulfilled, we intend to write the most thorough story we can….”

Reached Wednesday afternoon, Ms. Miller declined to say whether she would be giving an interview to the Times.

Italics mine. Okay: You’re Judy Miller. Your own attorney says you’re in the clear to be a journalist again. But you can’t say whether you’ll be granting the Times an interview?

See Dale Franks at the QandO blog on this point.

Wait, there’s more. From Salon’s Farhad Manjoo (Oct. 14):

Bill Keller, the paper’s executive editor, told Times reporter David Johnston that the judge’s ruling “should clear the way for The Times to do what we’ve been yearning to do: tell the story.” Asked by Salon to clarify this statement — did Keller mean that Miller would talk to Times reporters who are charged to investigate her role in the Plame case? — Keller was cagey: “If you’re patient, you’ll read your answer in our paper,” he wrote in an e-mail. (Miller’s attorneys did not return calls for comment.)

If Miller were cooperating, would Keller say anything like that? No, sorry, that’s evidence for thesis.

The Times article by David Johnston says the contempt finding has been lifted. Big news involving Judith Miller. But it mentions nothing about Miller agreeing to cooperate. I guess she couldn’t be reached. Seem likely to you? Or is there a “story” there?

See also Editor & Publisher’s account of it.

If you’re interested in why Miller might refuse to cooperate with Times journalism, the Left Coaster has a detailed examination and re-construction. Short answer: she misled her colleagues and they’re going to know.

On the other hand… maybe she isn’t cooperating with them (the Landman team) because she wants her piece to have the skinny, so she can shape perceptions and soften the blow of harsh facts. That fits what we know of Miller’s dramatics. I could see her trying that.

I was interviewed in David Folkenflik’s report for NPR’s “Morning Edition” (Oct. 13). You can listen here. He reveals that Miller had agreed last week to an interview with him. Then a corporate spokesperson called and said sorry, no go. That counts for my thesis that she doesn’t want to face tough questioning from her peers in journalism.

See too Tom Maguire’s careful dissection of the Observer piece I mentioned, focusing on Nick Kristoff of the Times and Walter Pincus of the Washington Post, who was also subpoened. Very interesting.

Howard Kurtz reports: “The anguish among New York Times staffers over the paper’s handling of the Judith Miller saga has mounted in recent days, much to the consternation of its top executives.” He quotes my statement that the Times “has lost the capacity to tell the truth about itself in this story,” which I made on his CNN show.

“Of course I’m concerned by the very palpable frustration in the newsroom,” Bill Keller said to Kurtz yesterday. “I share it. It’s excruciating to have a story and not be able to tell it, and annoying to be nibbled at by the blogs and to watch preposterous speculation congeal into conventional wisdom.”

After you read Kurtz, see Greg Mitchell, Why Judith Miller Can’t Catch a Break. “…her defenders want us to overlook her tainted WMD coverage. Here’s why that plea is absurd, and why so many at her own paper are voicing complaints.”

It’s clear (from what I’ve picked up) that some people at the Times aren’t worried. They think Keller and company have it under control. They counsel patience, as he does. When the Landman team publishes its account the doubts will be answered and the story will be told, they say. All this gloom and doom will then look silly. I have no idea how many are of this view, but the ranks of the de-exciters appear to include public editor Byron Calame.

Alice Marshall (technoflak) in comments: “When the NY Times complains that their sources lied to them, well, they sound like Arthur Anderson. It may past muster in a court of law, but it will not allow them to hold on to their market.”

Sourcing, verification, bloggers and the Times. The editor of the Greensboro newspaper, John Robinson of the News & Record, at his Editor’s Log:

We published a JP merger story online Monday morning based on a New York Times story that had no named sources or attribution. Hmmm, I thought, so I’m saying that we can justify publishing an unsourced Times story but not an unsourced post by a blogger? What if the blogger had been someone like, say, Ed Cone, a journalist, a columnist for this paper and a credible reporter? Hmmm again. Or what it had been Sandy Carmany, a city council member who might well be in a position to know about the buyout? We’d try to confirm the information, but what if we couldn’t? What if they protected their sources? If you believe your readers know more than you, where does this leave you? Why would we give the Times, which has had credibility issues of late, a pass but not local bloggers we trust?

The merger he mentions is Jefferson-Pilot Corp. with Lincoln National Corp.

Part of the background to Robinson’s post is the little argument I’ve been having with Melanie Sill, John’s counterpart in Raleigh at the News & Observer. It’s at her blog. And in the background to that was the ConvergeSouth conference in Greensboro. Here’s Ed Cone’s wrap-up with lots of links. And here’s Tim Porter with a long, winding and ultimately very satisfying commentary on my exchange with Melanie Sill.

Christopher Lydon of Open Source Radio in comments at an earlier post.

The real nightmare for the Times is the plain fact that one-way print-based corporate journalism cannot prevail in a rough-and-ready information game against the interactive, almost-free, global, democratic and instant Internet. 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.

Daniel Okrent, the first public editor at the Times, says this is what it’s all about:

While Okrent declined to comment on how the Times had been covering the Miller story, or on Calame’s decision so far not to write about it, he indicated he would have savored such an issue to review.

“If I were there, this is exactly the kind of issue I would want to get my teeth into. It is interesting stuff and it is important,” Okrent said during a phone interview from Cape Cod…

Jane Hamsher drinks it all in and decides: “I’m sticking with my initial guess — Judy lied and Fitzgerald nailed her.”

Richard Cohen of the Washington Post wants Fitzgerald to fold his tent and go away. No good can come from leak investigations, only a less free press. “Apres Miller comes moi.”

Atrios on Cohen: “It’s all there. The insider’s anger at being kept out of the loop. The Beltway class’s belief that they are above the law. Clinging to the fantasy that this case is about press freedom. The pundit’s arrogance that he knows what’s best for Washington.”

Mark Kleiman says the Miller investigation at the Times calls for “players” like Keller to excuse themselves and be treated as sources:

The conventions of journalism assume that the reporter and the outlet he works for are purely passive observers, not themselves actors. That’s almost always false to some extent, since it’s almost always true that the people and institutions being reported on are conscious of the potential presence of journalistic observers and are shaping their behavior to some extent in light of how it will appear in the media.

But sometimes that convention is so far from reality as to completely mislead the reader. In those cases, editorial recusal and the appointment of special editors and reporters ought to become conventional responses.

Jack Shafer in a column on the risk of criminalizing relations with sources writes: “National-security reporters—none of whom have clearances—receive classified information for a living.” How does he know that there aren’t any reporters with security clearences? It would be a good way of favoring a favorite, says I. Surely such arrangements would be secret if they existed. In fact, I could see a journalist fighting pretty hard to keep that kind of secret.

Earlier at PressThink:

Posted by Jay Rosen at October 12, 2005 7:00 PM