October 14, 2005
The Hypothesis: Notes on the Judy Miller Situation
This post I will keep updated with information and links throughout the weekend-- as life permits. So check back. (Hypothesis is Judy Miller won't talk to the Times reporters and help them produce a truthful account.)
UPDATE, Oct. 15. New post! Times Report on Judith Miller is Up: Key Passages. Go there to comment.
In my last post, Armchair Critic Speculates, I gave readers my hypothesis, to be tested against events: Judy Miller would not, in any material way, cooperate with the team of Times reporters directed by deputy managing editor Jon Landman. I wrote:
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.
You have met The Hypothesis. If it dies by reason of being untrue I shall be pleased to report it.
And if I knew that vital source Judith Miller, editor Jonathan Landman, reporters Adam Liptak, and Don Van Natta Jr., and writer Janny Scott got themselves a hotel suite (let’s say the Michelangelo at 51st and 7th Avenue) to thrash out the truth, and piece together an account that will stand up to the proper scrutiny of their readers and peers, then as a Times reader, a paying subscriber, a preening New Yorker, a journalism academic, a press critic, and public interest blogger, I would feel relieved. Quite so. (Of course I don’t know of any huddle like this; there have been no reports.)
Like Times-people I am rooting for the Landman team, and for the Times as a truthelling force in the world. I said it two days ago in Speculates:
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.
If Judith Miller is helping them— good! I would expect it to go without saying. My last four posts (here… here… here… and here) have been the words of a disappointed Times loyalist.
Now for the evidence that’s come in since The Hypothesis. (And why do we have to guess about all this? No one could draft a simple note to readers? What media era are we in?…)
First, in the Wall Street Journal’s report on Miller’s second day of additional testimony, the big news was the 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….”
And will Judy cooperate? The Hypothesis wants to know…
Reached Wednesday afternoon, Ms. Miller declined to say whether she would be giving an interview to the Times.
(Italics mine.) The court had just said: Judith Miller, you are free to go. Her attorney had just said she’s in the clear to be a journalist again. But when asked if she would grant an interview to her own newspaper, the New York Times, Judy Miller declines to say whether she will or won’t. Sorry, that counts as evidence for The Hypothesis.
Okay, 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.)
Reverse it: If Miller were cooperating, would Keller say anything like that? “Be patient, and your answer will be in the paper.” No, he would not. He’s saying to Manjoo there’s some “story” there. His caginess counts for The Hypothesis.
We move on to the subtler areas like: what’s left out? The Times article by David Johnston announced that the contempt finding has been lifted. Big news involving Judith Miller, right? But it mentions nothing about Miller agreeing to cooperate. The subject is avoided.
Of equal interest to The Hypothesis: Miller, the protagonist, is talked about throughout the story, but she isn’t in the story at all. No innocent quotes. No telling quotes. Hmmm. David Johnston didn’t have her cell phone number? No. She didn’t want to comment, or they didn’t want to ask her.
Why? We don’t know why. (Here’s some fact-filled speculation.) But this too counts as evidence for.
By nature The Hypothesis is at risk for reading too much into things, or as a student of mine once said, “chewing more than we’ve bit off.” Nonetheless, it was struck by the precise way Jonathan Landman worded something in an Observer article a few days ago. He was explaining why the report was delayed, and clarifying what Bill Keller had said in a memo to staff.
“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 story is ready to go, he’s (almost) saying. It’s just waiting for the point where Judy Miller “can be expected to tell what happened.” Note how the “expected” point is reached whether or not Miller talks to the Times. That is why he worded it that way, says The Hypothesis. It’s legalistic, and also precise. These are clues.
The Hypothesis senses you’d like more evidence. Well, I was interviewed in David Folkenflik’s report for NPR’s “Morning Edition,” Oct. 13. (You can listen here. He asked me to read the opening lines of my post where I said the Washington Post is the flagship now.) Folkenflik reveals that Miller had agreed to an interview with him. Then a corporate spokesperson called and said sorry, no go.
The Hypothesis smiled when it heard that. It could have predicted the call. Judy Miller wants to avoid tough, wide open questioning from peers, even though another part of her wants to speak out for a national shield law, and to the issue of protecting sources.
Given that, the Hypothesis was, well, surprised to learn that on Tuesday the Society of Professional Journalists is planning to give Judy Miller a First Amendment award—no lie—at its Las Vegas convention, and she’s going to speak, and there will be a panel discussion. From a SPJ mailing list:
New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who was jailed for four months for refusing to reveal a confidential source, will speak at SPJ’s national conference [in Las Vegas] at 8:15- 9 a.m., Oct. 18. Following the speech, Miller will receive a First Amendment Award and join a panel discussion titled “The Reporter’s Privilege Under Siege.” Joining her on the panel will be Associated Press reporter Josef Hebert, Patricia Hurtado of Newsday and Bruce Sanford of Baker and Hostetler. Don’t miss it.
Steve Lovelady and Paul McLeary didn’t. Their angry and well-reasoned piece in CJR Daily is mostly about the Times (“its silence on the matter has moved into the realm of the absurd”) but adds this:
In a late twist that left reporters and editors across the country raising their eyebrows, the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) revealed that it doesn’t share the discontent of many in the industry over the confounding way the Miller case has unfolded. In fact, it is bringing Miller in to speak at its national conference next week. After she speaks, it plans on presenting her with its “First Amendment Award” convening a panel discussion titled “The Reporter’s Privilege Under Siege.”
Forgive us if we’re not exactly holding our breath for Miller’s speech, but the only thing we see under siege here is the reputation of the Times — and that of SPJ as well.
Read them. Frankly, I would be surprised if this engagement were kept. It’s strange to me that SPJ would plan it without knowing what will be revealed in the Times report. Normal prudence would seem to say: wait and see. Especially since in August the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) had to reverse a committee decision to give Miller a Conscience in Media award. And this was before the questions surrounding her release, the late discovery of notes, the refusal to answer reporters’ questions, the celebrity-style TV appearances. If AJSA thought better of it, what was SPJ thinking?
Anyway, for The Hypothesis it will count against if she shows, and for if she cancels. But there’s an earlier test, according to Dan Gillmor:
Miller will be speaking this weekend — or so I’ve been told — at the California First Amendment Coalition’s annual Open Government Assembly in Fullerton, California. I’m heading down there tomorrow (doing a keynote and a panel), and will be fascinated to see what California journalists’ reaction is to her.
No kidding. (Update: she’s not speaking, Dan says.) The Hypothesis will be watching. So will others. Title for the conference: “Unlocking government for the public and the press & the blogs.” Some think that’s what the Miller case is all about. Several people have suggested to me that she will put herself in the situation—show up to these forums—then try to set rules on what can and cannot be discussed. Hypothesis Lite. Risky, but plausible.
I know you are not, but if you were Judith Miller, and Jonathan Landman’s team was readying for publication the most important article in your career, on which your entire reputation for the moment rests; and if you were cooperating with that team, because you were vitally concerned that the story come out fair and right, would you be winging it to California for the weekend? Or would you want to be in that hotel room where they’re supposed to be bulletproofing the story?
By the way, I asked a Times Person (TP) this week, “what would happen if she just refused?” TP said she would be fired for sure.
Finally, The Hypothesis was struck by something public editor Barney Calame said when he finally spoke up about the missing journalism. I applaud him for it; there was an edge in his voice too.
“As public editor, I have been asking some basic questions of the key players at The Times since July 12,” he wrote. “But they declined to fully respond to my fundamental questions because, they said, of the legal entanglements of Ms. Miller and the paper.”
It’s that phrase: and the paper… He may be saying that the New York Times Company had a possible legal entanglement, which might have been affected by publishing virtually anything about Miller, including a column from Calame about the situation preventing publication. This would explain a lot. But isn’t that like self-inflicted prior restraint?
After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…
Washington Post story today:
A team of Times reporters is preparing a report on Miller’s role in the saga that could be published as early as tomorrow. Until a contempt-of-court citation against her was lifted, Miller refused to tell her story to the paper on the advice of her lawyers. But Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis said yesterday that Miller is now cooperating with fellow reporters on the story.
Certainly counts against The Hypothesis. Got a data point? E-mail PressThink.
Dan Gillmor is at the California First Amendment Coalition conference where Judith Miller was to speak (or so he was told.) He now reports (Oct. 15) that Miller “will present an award here later today but, an organizer tells me, isn’t going to speak about her case or answer questions.” Floyd Abrams is speaking. That counts (indirectly) for The Hypothesis, unless she was never supposed to speak or answer questions in the first place.
The muck… In comments, blogger and ex-journalist Billmon waxes historical:
I was reading about the Pentagon Papers case last night, and it brought home for me how low the mighty have fallen. The arc from that moment to this one — from Neil Sheehan and his sources to Judy Miller and hers — also traces the long, sad decline of “respectable” American journalism. I guess the early ’70s were just an aberration — a brief Prague Spring for an institution that’s never been comfortable being in opposition, even in situations where telling the truth automatically makes you part of the opposition.
I can’t decide if Miller is, like Bob Novak and Fox News, a throwback to the older era of partisan operatives, or the vanguard of some new type — the reporter as information warfare specialist.
Probably a mixture of both. From the muck the profession arose and to the muck it shall return.
Here’s another despairing Times loyalist: Editor & Publisher columnist William Jackson. “The Times has been my daily companion for half a century, as I studied, taught, and practiced politics and foreign policy.” But now… “We have observed the selling of the birthright of The New York Times… For this citizen, it is a sad, and repulsive, sight.”
EditorsWeblog: The Grey Lady to shrink format?
PressThink reader and writer Weldon Berger at BTC News: “…someone at the paper has been sitting on this latest powder keg since July of 2003, when Miller didn’t write the story for which she met with Libby and possibly other sources as well, and when the scandal erupted.”
Nothing to do with the Times or Miller: The Anchoress, described as “one of the blogosphere’s most mysterious and interesting voices,” did a guest shot at CBS’s Public Eye, as I did a month ago. She watched the evening news and wrote about what surprised her.
Posted by Jay Rosen at October 14, 2005 2:11 PM
Just wrote this up for my blog.
There are lots of interesting things going on in media circles in the last few days - including Karl Rove testifying again today - but I don't have the time or energy to write up a new media column this week.
Instead I'm preparing some school projects and hoping to get at least 8 hours of sleep tonight.
Besides the main topic is the same the one I wrote about last week ("Stop getting scooped!") and the week before, namely Judith Miller, the New York Times and related problems. And while I still wish Rove and Novak would explain their actions, I don't expect that to happen.
But reports that expectations of court
Miller now has the legal right to spill the beans and answer all the questions I, Jay Rosen and others have asked.
But my guess is she'll stick with preferring to play the quiet martyr role instead of explaining what is going on and what transpired.
Here's a few good reads on the topic:
- Why the heck is Judith Miller getting a first amendment award considering how much her actions are hurting, not helping, the media community.
- New York Times columnists give a lame explanation on why they are not writing about the Miller situation.
- The best posts and discussion I've seen on the issue continue to occur at Jay Rosen's Press Think.
- The Columbia Journalism Review's Web site continues to do some of the best reporting on this issue, including with this piece on the silence/stink that still permeates at the Times about Miller.
- A Richard Cohen column on the leak is not going over well with some bloggers.
As I alluded to last week, the morale is dropping at the Times, which Howard Kurtz wrote about Thursday.
In more or less important topics, depending on your perspective:
- The next James Bond actor has been chosen: Daniel Craig. And he's blond!
- Richard Goldstein, a long-time editor at the Village Voice, has sued it for sexual harassment over his sexual orientation. The Smoking Gun has the details about the suit which also alleges age discrimination.
- Captain Ed writes good blogs about the Miers nomination and about a Washington Post story on Bush polling among blacks to which he objected.
- Michelle Malkin remains furious with the news media. What else is new. This time her beefs include Mike Wallace and the American media's coverage of the war.
- Meanwhile there is a wonderful snarky - though a bit mean - blog about Jeff
Jarvis today which Jarvis did not seem to take well.
I'm growing more convinced that it's some form of legal jeopardy involving the Times that's the "secret" here, or one of them. It accounts for the data-- but not all of course.
The problem with this theory is that everyone (most notably, Calame) has gone on the record to say that there has been "no pressure" to not write about the Miller affair. If there was "no pressure" where would Calame get the notion that the Times itself had "legal entanglements?"
Because the Times was never under supoena, it had no "current" legal entanglements --- unless, of course, Keller and Sulzberger were actively conspiring with Miller to obstruct justice by withholding key evidence from Fitzgerald aka "The June 23 Notes".
And since speculation seems to be the order of the day, allow me to offer this theory --- Miller, Keller, Sulzberger, and most importantly Abrams knew about the June Notes but had kept their existence a secret. When Miller testified to the Grand Jury, she said/implied something (perhaps some kind of blanket denial of other conversations concerning Wilson) that compelled Abrams to have the Notes "found" and turned over to the Prosecutor in order to avoid "legal entanglements" not just for the Times, but for himself. (If Abrams knew that Miller had made false statements to the grand jury, and there was evidence of it, he would have had to report it.)
But according to Calame, he wasn't told about anything that would constitute "pressure" -- his attitude was no different from the Times "op-ed" columnists whose positions have been "I've got nothing unique to say on the subject at this time, and don't want to discuss it until all the facts are out". (As if Times columnists never repeat conventional wisdom, or engage in speculation without all the facts!)
Calame had an obligation to address the issue well before it blew up completely in the Times face---an obligation that he ignored. The whole question of whether Miller deserved the "First Amendment Martyr" label that the Times conferred upon her had been controversial for months----but not only did the Times provide only one side of the argument in its editorials and from its columnists (Safire, Dole), it published almost nothing of the opposing viewpoint when expressed by letter writers.
THAT is something that Calame should have been addressing, and he didn't----and no "legal entanglements" arguments are relevant to those issues.
That is the elephant in the room as far as Calame is concerned. Calame wastes his time writing puff pieces about how Times staffers perceive their readership, or obsessing over whether an opinion writer's conclusions regarding the Florida recount data is "true" or not (and Krugman's conclusions were supported by the data, even if partisans could "spin" the data differently), rather than dealing with the big issues confronting the Times. The fact that he cites "legal entanglements" for the Times at the same time he claims he has been under no pressure to avoid addressing the Miller issue just shows how dishonest he is.
Dave: I think you are very right when you paraphrase the attitude as "We'll tell you the news we think appropriate when we damn well want to. You'll just have to be patient." It's very 1987, and it's hurt them a lot. Just not the way the world works anymore. Keller's actually lucky there haven't been more leaks. His staff must basically like him, whereas with Raines...
ami: I bet "no pressure" means to Calame: "I make my own decisions, no one intimidates me." He may have made his own decisions about the paper's legal jeopardy, after having had the situation explained to him by Abrams and others.
I agree there were many issues he could have addressed in the paper or his web journal; he may have felt that if he couldn't say what he knew, saying nothing would better, less misleading. That's the thing about secrets. Once you ingest them they spread silence over what they did not at first touch. Look how "Judy's sources" silenced one of the world's greatest newspapers-- with 1,000+ journalists! Anyway, Calame does not strike me as easily intimidated. And right now he's one of the most powerful people at the New York Times.
I think what the Times hierachy failed to grasp throughout this episode is that when there's a gap between what the paper knows and what the papers tells, it starts eating away at trust and sowing danger from moment one. When the gap becomes public, as it did here, and then intensely public, as it did here, the damage is not of the type that repairs itself when the full story is finally told.
They decided to focus on telling the eventual truth, ignoring what was happening to their truthtelling credentials in the present moment. Keller's attitude, "be patient, you'll get it when we decide you can have it" is shockingly naieve. But one thing I have learned in studying big time journalists and their ideas is their own self-image as society's crap-detectors leaves them vulnerable to some whopping self-illusions.
New possibility: my hypothesis will be essentially right but we'll never know. Here's how: I have been hearing they asked or demanded of Miller that she write a first person piece about what she told the grand jury, figuring she wouldn't fib or mislead because Fitzgerald has what she said and may well put it all in a report. They limit her to that because it's the only part of the story Landman and crew cannot try to get themselves.
The Landman team does the story without her, but perhaps she met with them in token fashion (without saying anything) and it can be spun as cooperation. Then with Miller's piece in the package a good face will be put on things. They can avoid firing her. Then in a month or so she resigns to write a book and it looks... not so bad. The Procol Harum moment never comes. Fuzzing it up "works."
But that strategy is vulnerable to leaks. Miller has many enemies at the paper and people who are very pissed. I would still be surprised if she shows in Las Vegas and SPJ goes forward with this award. It kind of boggles the mind. Anyone who reads PressThink a member of SPJ?
The way this unwinds is positively Shakespearian.
As William Jackson notes, Judy, with her WMD articles, "materially contributed to taking The Times out of the business of holding those in power accountable and turned it into a propaganda organ."
So now, we're left with an interesting cast of characters.
-- Miller herself. Hero for writing about bioterrorism and Al Qaeda before anyone else did. Goat for swallowing the Chalabi-Cheney WMD fiction, and for apparent collusion with Libby, Rove, et. al. in a failed attempt to discredit the Wilson op-ed piece by outing Plame.
-- Sulzberger, who, along with Miller, was a cub reporter in the Washington bureau 30 years ago, and who now runs the joint.
-- Keller, a hire from the Portland Oregonian, who made his chops with outstanding performances first as Moscow reporter, then as foreign editor and then as managing editor. As executive editor, he finds himself hobbled by the legal strategies of Miller's lawyers.
-- Jill Abramson, who, as Washington bureau chief, was Miller's WMD editor, and who was promoted to managing editor by Keller as soon as he got the top job.
-- Landman, the go-to guy at the Times whenever you want someone to get to the bottom of things.
-- Calame, an outsider, brought in after a long and distinguished career at the Wall Street Journal, to cast a skeptical eye at all of the above.
And all of them are seemingly at odds with each other.
Maybe I'm missing something, but I don't see any way this can end well for anyone involved.
I suspect that Fitzgerald's indictment, when it comes, will be far juicer than anything the Times writes.
I also suspect that Scott is correct; the world doesn't care.
But, as Jackson says, those of us who remember the Times of Gay Talese, Harrison Salisbury, Max Frankel and Joe Lelyveld do care.
We care a lot.
I'm normally just a lurker here, but on this one I do have a few comments and questions.
First, to Jay, thanks for this forum. It is always a mental exercise for me one way or another and for that I am thankful.
Second, to Steve Lovelady, my estimation of you went up hugely reading your Friday story at CJR. I have long considered your comments here frustrating, obtuse, and at times, willfully ignoring to answer what other commenters have said. I can now leave all of that aside and say that for now I understand how deeply you care for journalism, even if I disagree with your take on things the other 99% of the time.
To Alice Marshall, I love your writing at Technoflak as well but on this one I think Sisyphus completely called your bluff. To say essentially that "these normal, security-clearanced" folks weren't expecting to be quoted is akin to what I've just now given Mr. Lovelady credit for: if they have clearances and should not be speaking, even if in private, about said clearances or any matters related to or covered by those clearances, they have no right to expect not to be quoted. They have just broken the same rules (laws?) they received clearance for. For you not to quote them is simply wrong on all counts and I lean firmly toward Sisyphus's view that it is funny, if not shrewd, on your part to take the weasel way out of this one. Still, glass houses and all.
So, now for the commentary. The NYT is a public company, and I have not seen anyone address that aspect of the storyline yet. Yes, corporate attorneys, private attorneys, et. al. have been mentioned, but no one has discussed the fiduciary duty that the corporation has to its shareholders. That, to me, is something I would like to hear about from better minds than mine (that includes 99% of all commenters here, I will freely admit, whether I agree with your political tack or not). What I do know of corporate law stipulates that anything that could potentially affect the NYT's stock price, up or down, must legally be disclosed asap. Total speculation here on my part, but I would guess that if all of this results in any material change of leadership, or anything like the NYT wire service losing clients (based on downstream news outlets declining to renew their licenses because of readership loss or commentary), that adds an element again I've not seen discussed by anyone here to the fiduciary duty of the NYTCO. It may or may not affect what the NYT paper can or can't report on, but I'm willing to bet there is something larger to the legal wranglings, at least from the corporate view. I would welcome postulations from other commenters.
And, now that I've waded into a river of thinking probably too deep for me to be in, I'll go back to lurking and seeing if anyone can provide insights where my knowledge is not honed enough to know better.
For a blog item today I decided to look at this issue from another perspective.
If I were the judge sentencing Miller - let alone other bad journalists - what would I do to them?
Answer? Put them on a committee - led by Wilson and Plame - where they are re-taught what journalists are supposed to do and act.
Excerpt from this piece, which was quite fun and cathartic to write:
We have a name in journalism for people who repeatedly avoid reporters' attempts to get comments on big important issues.
And that name is spokesman and spokeswoman.
Ironically these mute spokespeople are most unhelpful after some juicy info was leaked that made an institution look bad and is often accompanied by a memo discouraging employees from talking to the media.
So... using what I've been learning in my physics and statistics and educational science I have reached a hypothesis of my own:
Judith Miller is less helpful than a bad spokeswoman.
And unfortunately in this case - unlike most instances when such a system is in place - others don't seem willing to go on the record with what is really going
When you consider the New York Times got into this mess because of leaking in the first place and Miller didn't even write a story for God's sake, well, I think there is only one logical next step.
And that step is for Miller to get on a government committee with Jayson Blair (plagarist), Robert Novak (deceitful windbag), and others who need to a refresher course on what it is journalists do.
Example from their first session: Check facts before printing them not act as stooges for anonymous sources, etc.
I'd nominate Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame - the real victims in this whole Miller mess - to be in charge of the committee and let those two decide if the "journalists/apologists" should
get any pay and how long the committee will last.
In Miller's case my suggestion is her immediate termination from the Times since she appears to be helping the paper restore needed credibility about as much as Dan Quayle helped Bush senior get taken seriously.
For extra credit each committee member will have to leak something to the media and then ask the source if they will go to jail to protect them....
I go on to connect Miller to Courntey Love and Howard Kurtz which I consider a blogger's version of a hat trick