November 5, 2005
Why Oh Why Did the Society of Professional Journalists Give Judith Miller a First Amendment Award?
Guest writer, education blogger and ex-reporter Jenny DeMonte interviews outgoing SPJ President Irwin Gratz about it. Gratz: "We did not give Judy Miller an ethics award." JennyD: "I’m disappointed because when I went into journalism, I thought it was noble work."
Jay Rosen: The writer JennyD, a regular in PressThink comment threads, is a former reporter and editor now pursuing a PhD in education, and blogging about it. I asked her to find out from Irwin Gratz (a former student of mine at NYU) what’s up with this big splashy award to Judy Miller at the SPJ convention in Las Vegas. I found it staggering myself. Here is JennyD’s report. You can discuss it with her and others in comments.
On October 18, the Society of Professional Journalists gave Judith Miller of the New York Times its First Amendment Award. It’s a big deal. Of the 375 people who attended, almost all stood to applaud as she received the award. The first word she said after being handed the plaque was, ”Wow.” (Miller’s remarks can be heard on this Quicktime video.)
In his introduction and presentation of the award, SPJ president Irwin Gratz emphasized that Miller was honored for spending 85 days in jail rather than name a confidential source to a grand jury, and that act was clearly in support of a free press.
Except in the several weeks leading up the award presentation, the slowly emerging details of Miller’s story didn’t exactly support the case of her sacrifice for the Constitution.
She can’t remember how the name of the CIA agent ended up in her notebook, written in the mysterious misspelling “Valerie Flame.” So she can’t say for certain who told it to her. Maybe her lawyer believes that. Does anyone else?
This after she admits she completely screwed up in her reports about WMD in Iraq. They were based on confidential sources, the kind of people who tell secrets but don’t have to take responsibility for the telling. People who Miller says are invaluable to reporters, but who might be totally unreliable, as she discovered. It was just a big mistake, she told the gathering at SPJ. “Sometimes these [confidential] sources are wrong or mistaken. They were mistaken on WMD, Republicans and Democrats alike. As a result my reporting was wrong.” But she quickly noted that journalists need to protect their secret sources, regardless of whether the information is right or wrong.
To this her colleague Maureen Dowd later said: “But investigative reporting is not stenography.”
The source of the information about the CIA agent, Scooter Libby, turns out to be the kind of person with an axe to grind, being in the Vice President’s office, and seeing that Valerie Plame’s husband—Joseph Wilson IV who worked in the State Department—had been saying things that probably irritated people in the Administration. One would think that Miller might have made that intellectual leap, and turned away from this particular confidential source given the chance that he had an agenda.
And then, once talking to Libby, she cut him a deal not to name him as an official in the administration. Why? Because he didn’t want it.
My recollection, I told him, was that Mr. Libby wanted to modify our prior understanding that I would attribute information from him to a “senior administration official.” When the subject turned to Mr. Wilson, Mr. Libby requested that he be identified only as a “former Hill staffer.” I agreed to the new ground rules because I knew that Mr. Libby had once worked on Capitol Hill.
Most of this came out in print on October 16, in the pages of the New York Times. Five days later, in a memo that obviously pained him to write, Miller’s editor, Bill Keller, suggested that the paper might have been taken for a ride in defending Miller without actually knowing what she had done. Clearly, that possibility had been floating around the Times and elsewhere (see PressThink’s many posts listed here.) It’s hard to imagine that anyone paying attention to the case was surprised by Keller’s words.
Was Miller really running the show at the Times? Jay Rosen said so here, and then on CNN. Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., Miller’s boss, said: “This car had her hand on the wheel because she was the one at risk.” And Miller repeated in a discussion at SPJ that she was the one who was in charge of her notes and situation, not the paper, and any publisher should do what Sulzberger did: “I was the one who had to go jail. I was the one taking the risk. It was basically my decision because it was my notes.”
Miller said at the SPJ event that she went to jail to protect a free press. By that she meant not just the right of a reporter to write and publish freely, but also the right of people to talk to reporters in confidence, and not be named: “It is the freedom of people to talk to the press without getting in trouble, and it is that right that is in trouble today. None of the best stories I’ve written in my thirty years at the Times could have been done without confidential sources.”
Well, if Lewis Libby wanted to attack Wilson’s credibility why didn’t he just write an op-ed piece about Wilson’s many errors, untruths and sly misstatements? Why did he need to go off the record? “Libby did not want the White House to be seen as attacking Mr. Wilson” is Miller’s answer.
Miller as expected called for a federal shield law in her SPJ speech, arguing it would protect the confidential sources on whom reporters rely for news. Except that many people, including Miller’s boss Bill Keller agree that a shield law wouldn’t apply in her case, largely because it involves issues of national security (i.e., outing a CIA agent).
Given the clamor over Miller’s professional behavior, and the lack of clarification about it, why did SPJ stand firm on its decision to reward her for her professionalism? (They weren’t the first to celebrate her jailing with an honor; earlier in the month, she was invited to present a First Amendment award to Mark Felt, aka Deep Throat at the California First Amendment Coalition meeting.)
PressThink asked Irwin Gratz, whose term as president ended the day Miller received the award, to explain the society’s stance. (Gratz is Morning Edition Producer for Maine Public Radio.) He was centrally involved. Here’s his initial response to Jay Rosen. We bring it to you in full:
Of course, as President, I sat on the seven-member executive committee that acts as the awards committee for our annual “Freedom of Information” award. Our initial decision was made in mid-July, a time when Judith Miller was in jail. But, even then I and the other members of our committee were fully aware of the totality of the situation: the questions raised (even by the Times) about Miller’s reporting on Iraq and doubts about the legal strategy pursued by the New York Times (it was our own counsel, Bruce Sanford, who argued in January that Miller and Cooper’s lawyers should have been trying to quash the subpoena based on the unlikelihood that the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982 applied to this instance). Personally, I marveled at the irony that the person or persons Miller was in jail protecting were almost surely officials of the Bush Administration who have been no friend of the press.
Fair enough, but we still have questions. Gratz says that SPJ knew Miller’s reporting practices were suspect, and that people were talking about it even back in July when the society made the decision to give her the award. But those problems were less important than what SPJ saw as the greater good: Miller’s time behind bars would highlight the need for a federal shield law for reporters. Although moves toward passage of the law were already underway when Miller went to jail (34 state attorneys general writing a brief to the Supreme Court in June), her defiance gave a narrative and a picture to the quest for the law. It was that public and publicized act of going to jail—-regardless of whether there was any need to do it, or whether the reporter doing it was really an ethical reporter—-that got Miller the award. Kind of “the ends justifies the means” analysis.
Others see Miller’s jailing and then her decision to testify and leave jail as something less than a win for the First Amendment. Mickey Kaus says her actions may have undermined the work of journalists and their commitment to a free press.
It’s now clear confinement wasn’t pointless. It worked for the prosecutor exactly as intended. After a couple of months of sleeping on “two thin mats on a concrete slab,” Miller decided, in her words, “I owed it to myself” to check and see if just maybe Libby really meant to release her from her promise of confidentiality. And sure enough— you know what?—it turns out he did! The message sent to every prosecutor in the country is “Don’t believe journalists who say they will never testify. A bit of hard time and they just might find a reason to change their minds. Judy Miller did.” This is the victory for the press the Times has achieved. More journalists will now go to jail, quite possibly, than if Miller had just cut a deal right away, before taking her stand on “principle.”
SPJ is a fine organization, dedicated to everything it says. The group has a code of ethics for journalists that Gratz characterized this way, in a follow-up email to me: “The SPJ Code is, we believe, the best model in existence today for a general code of ethics. Individual news organizations do craft codes that have more specific provisions that may be based either on their own history or expectations.” He’s right. It is a solid and fairly comprehensive list of principles journalists should follow.
Here are some key passages possibly bearing on the case of Judith Miller: (Read the whole thing.)
Seek Truth and Report It
“Keep promises,” of course, works in Miller’s favor. But did she uphold the other sections? Not according to two local chapters of SPJ— Northern California and Mid-Florida. They have criticized the award to Miller in an open letter written by Peter Y. Sussman, a former president of the Northern California group, and Linda Jue, current vice president. As reported by Editor & Publisher, they said:
We hope to set the record straight on behalf of conscientious journalists around the country who support journalists’ First Amendment responsibilities but are deeply troubled by Miller’s earlier unprofessional conduct and SPJ’s failure to fully apply its own Code of Ethics to this case… The message has been sullied by the ethical misdeeds of the messenger…
Gratz told E & P that SPJ didn’t put its support for a shield law above its ethics code. Rather, it separated the two: ethics on one hand, courageous actions on the other. “I think all we were doing was not commenting on Judy Miller’s ethics, only her actions that amounted to extraordinary efforts in support of the First Amendment,” he said. Gratz told me:
I haven’t done any in-depth analysis of Miller’s work or how it relates to the code, but you identify areas where questions have fairly been raised. Our delegates, meeting at the convention last week, believed they’d heard enough to pass a resolution that reminds all reporters to exercise restraint in the granting of anonymity and be more careful in negotiating the terms of anonymity with a source.
Yeah, and you should see that resolution by scrolling down to After Matter, including the parts critical of Judy Miller that were voted down. I asked Gratz the following: Miller more or less admits violating (or at least treading on) several parts of the code. And she also admits misleading and outright disobeying the direction of the editors responsible for maintaining these principles for her newspaper writ large. What does that behavior say about her commitment to SPJ values, as in the society’s famous code of ethics? And what does your decision to give her the First Amendment award say about SPJ’s own commitment to this code?
Your question answers itself about Miller’s commitment to follow our code. But we did not give Judy Miller an ethics award and any given journalist’s ethics, however good or bad, doesn’t speak to their commitment to the First Amendment.
Okay, so it wasn’t an award for her professional behavior or ethics. It was an award for spending 85 days in jail. But what if she didn’t have to do that? No one else involved in the case did. That aside, wouldn’t a reporter have to be pretty well-regarded, with a high-level of ethical behavior, in order to be considered for any journalism award? I mean how much leeway is there? Gratz:
One of the things that strikes me about our Code of Ethics is that it contains very few absolute proscriptions about behavior. It does say “never plagiarize,” but it more often says things like “Avoid misleading re-enactments,” “Be judicious about naming criminal suspects,” “Be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes,” “Be wary of sources offering information for money.”
And here’s where Gratz and I talked about my perennial question: Why is journalism “special?” Why do journalists need special privileges and opportunities? Why should they get their own shield law? All of these come out of my desire to understand what non-negotiables there are in journalism, which rules and practices the public—-as well as sources and editors—-can rely on and trust. I mean aren’t they supposed to be a “special” case because in real journalism there are absolutes?
… I hope, and believe, that the members of my Society do honor the code always. But, as I explain to students, ethics is not the law. The law is usually clear: I may not walk up to you on the street and shoot you dead. But if you’re running for office and refusing to release your tax returns because they would show you listing your mentally retarded sister as a dependent (my wife faced just these facts during her reporting days), the proper course of action is much less clear.
I’m not sure I agree with Gratz here. Under his rationale, journalism becomes pretty loosey-goosey, with ethics as a kind of moving target depending on the context of the work. Well, maybe it’s okay to mislead readers about the identity of a confidential source, or maybe it’s fine to report whatever you get from sources, even if they’re all wrong, or only one person says it. Makes the job a lot easier. No wonder Miller’s colleagues are irritated. Here they are, trying to work under ethical codes that prevent running amok, and she’s running amok. Should the Times have gone to the mat for someone who engages in such questionable practices?
No, it shouldn’t, according to Richard Stevenson, one of the paper’s White House correspondents. In Keller’s October 21 memo about the Miller affair he says:
Dick Stevenson has expressed the larger lesson here in an e-mail that strikes me as just right: “I think there is, or should be, a contract between the paper and its reporters. The contract holds that the paper will go to the mat to back them up institutionally — but only to the degree that the reporter has lived up to his or her end of the bargain, specifically to have conducted him or herself in a way consistent with our legal, ethical and journalistic standards, to have been open and candid with the paper about sources, mistakes, conflicts and the like, and generally to deserve having the reputations of all of us put behind him or her. In that way, everybody knows going into a battle exactly what the situation is, what we’re fighting for, the degree to which the facts might counsel compromise or not, and the degree to which our collective credibility should be put on the line.”
I’ve heard similar sentiments from a number of reporters in the aftermath of this case.
I was a journalist for fifteen years, and loved it. I was a member of SPJ too. But my love affair with journalism might be ending here, as the folks who make up the membership of one of the most important organizations in the profession decide to look the other way when their hero violates basic principles. I fear they believed that Miller’s chosen imprisonment overshadowed any shoddiness in her work.
This is another part of the slow rot that’s eating at the work of newsgathering and reporting and writing and producing. Journalism has, as its core, the trust between reporters and editors, and reporters and the public. As that erodes, the whole enterprise starts to crumble. People turn away from news and reporting. Other forms can rise and steal the hearts and minds of citizens.
I am quite disappointed that a professional organization, representing work I love, would have celebrated someone who appears to have stomped all over the highest values of the practice. If Stevenson and Keller are right about the “contract between the paper and its reporters,” where’s the contract between journalists and the public? That’s what the rules and codes are supposed to be. They tell us what journalists do to retain our trust without us having to witness every act of newsgathering.
I’m disappointed because when I went into journalism, I thought it was noble work. My colleagues and bosses were dedicated to the highest standards of finding out everything, and then making sure that everyone had access to that information. I thought we had rules that everyone followed, and that editors strictly enforced. I looked at my job with almost the same view as maybe a court judge: the rules of evidence mattered because without them, stories could be slanted, shoddy work passed off as professional, and people could be misled and worse. This is the latest event that reminds those things I believed are not always true in journalism today, and I fear they may never have been.
Update: On Tuesday, November 15, the New York Chapter of SPJ sent a letter to the organization’s executive committee expressing its unhappiness with the decision to grant the award to Miller. E&P has the story here, and here’s where you can read the entire letter. Here’s some of what it said:
Ms. Miller has yet to adequately explain the contradictions, inconsistencies and missing pieces to her story. Indeed, The Times reporters who contributed to an Oct. 16 investigation into Ms. Miller’s role in the case have described her as uncooperative and evasive – which is her right, considering the likelihood that she will be called to testify in the case against Mr. Libby, if the lying and obstruction charges against him reach trial. We respect her decision to protect herself from legal troubles by limiting the likelihood that her public statements might contradict any testimony she has given or might give in the future.
And then in conclusion:
In light of the above concerns, we want to be on record that we do not stand with the executive committee of SPJ on this year’s First Amendment Award. The committee clearly saw an opportunity to share in the limelight with Ms. Miller to promote SPJ’s activities and draw attention to its national convention. But to us, this was the wrong cause to attach the Society’s name to.
After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…
Jenny DeMonte worked for 15 years as a reporter and editor at Esquire and New York Woman magazines, the Hartford Courant and Bergen Record newspapers, and was named editor of New Jersey Monthly in 1993. The following year, she created a biannual ranking of the state’s high schools that became one of the best-selling features published by NJM. She left journalism in 2000 and entered a doctoral program in education at the University of Michigan. She started her weblog as a way to make the work of scholars and academics in education more transparent and available to all.
Here is a copy of the resolution on the use of anonymous sources passed by delegates to the 2005 SPJ Convention & National Journalism Conference in Las Vegas, Oct 17-18. Before approving the text, the delegates removed two paragraphs critical of Judith Miller (keep reading for those.)
Whereas, the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists calls upon journalists to “be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power acountable” and to “keep promises;” and
The following two clauses were proposed and deleted by the delegates before final passage of the resolution:
Whereas, coverage by Judity Miller and other journalists of supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, using anonymous sources that proved to be wrong, is part of a continuing debate over a major question of public policy; and
Meanwhile, my former employer in northern New Jersey, The Record, ran a pretty damning editorial about the Miller affair, entitled “Heroine No More.”
Journalism has had a lot of bad press lately. Ms. Miller’s going to jail was supposed to be a shining moment for the First Amendment. Now The Times’ top editor has said he made mistakes in dealing with her. There’s a chance she may be fired.
Jeff Jarvis adds more insight to how journalism writ large may suffer from its embrace of Miller’s professionalism. Awards, speeches, adulation…all of that indicates that her behavior as a journalist is not only acceptable, but laudable according to her colleagues. It’s not about who exactly she was protecting, or which political group makes out best here. This is about journalism, about the pact that the profession has made with the public. That’s what’s at risk here. Jarvis gets it right.
Like it or not, we in journalism are judged by our worst work and what we do about it. When we circle the wagons to defend fellow journalists instead of defending the truth, we lose trust. I tell editorial organizations trying to improve quality that it’s more important to raise the bar at the low end than the high end because of this….
To those of us outside looking in, it seems that journalists have made promises to sources and maybe to themselves, but there’s been some kind of breakdown in its promise to the public. If so, that’s a big problem, because without the public to read and watch journalism, there is no business to work in. (Speaking of the public, here’s the latest report on dropping newspaper circulation numbers. Maybe more trust would reverse the trend? Couldn’t hurt.)
SPJ takes some more heat in Romenesko’s letters— the news industry’s bulletin board. Holden Lewis writes about a recent email from the new president of SPJ that he has problems with. His last lines are rather pointed.
I used to feel proud about my SPJ public service medal. Now it has been debased. I’ll have to check the medallion when I go home. It was bronze. Now it’s probably been transmuted into lead.
The WSJ, in a story about the road to Scooter Libby’s trial, says that reporters Judith Miller, Matthew Cooper, and Tim Russert could all be questioned.
The reporters are expected to face a barrage of questions from defense lawyers. Instead of protecting sources, they could end up defending their own credibility, reputations and reporting techniques….
The New York Observer reports on Miller’s continuing negotiations with the Times over her potential return to the paper, and whether she can write a rebuttal on the paper’s Op-Ed pages. It seems that the Times’ bosses think maybe the best thing to do with a difficult reporter is make her an editor.
Jay Rosen continues to press the Times to explain exactly what Judith Miller was up to in Iraq and afterward. Specifically, he’s waiting for Times executives to clarify competing explanations from Miller about security clearances she had while covering the war. Did she have a DoD clearance that prevented her from fully reporting what she knew? Jay’s letter to Romenesko emphasizes that that the confusion remains, and no one knows for sure what kind of clearance Judy Miller had.
Latest Miller severance update from the New York Observer: As of November 8, the Times and Miller are close to reaching agreement over her separation from the paper. She won’t be an editor…or a reporter, according to the story. She still wants to write an op-ed, but there’s nothing definitive about that in her either. But some Times’ staffers say publish her argument.
Meanwhile, Times bosses are surprised by her tenaciousness over the negotiations and her demands.
With Ms. Miller so insistent on getting a chance to publish her argument, some at the paper are wondering what the Times brass stood to gain by not going along. “It’s hard for me to argue against letting her have her say, to rebut the charges against her,” one Times staffer said. “Aren’t we in the business of letting it all hang out?”
Going, going, gone. Judith Miller has officially “retired” from the New York Times. Here’s the link to the Romenesko item.
Bill Keller’s memo to the staff includes a little clarification over the his use of the word “entanglement” in a previous memo about Miller that he sent to the staff on October 21. Her concern of that word was in today’s New York Observer story too.
First, you are upset with me that I used the words “entanglement” and “engagement” in reference to your relationship with Scooter Libby. Those words were not intended to suggest an improper relationship. I was referring only to the series of interviews through which you — and the paper — became caught up in an epic legal controversy.
Tomorrow’s Times will carry a letter from Miller about her reasons for her departure. The paper’s story announcing her retirement is here.
Judith Miller published her own letter on her own website, judithmiller.org. The letter itself is unrepentant, and appears to confuse the reason that her newsroom colleagues were upset by her actions and opposed her return.
Though some colleagues disagreed with my decision to testify, for me to have stayed in jail after achieving my conditions would have seemed self-aggrandizing martyrdom or worse, a deliberate effort to obstruct the prosecutor’s inquiry into serious crimes.
Weren’t her colleagues upset because of her reportorial practices, rather than her decision to testify? In the October 16 article, Jill Abramson said that Miller had never approached her suggesting an article about Wilson, et. al, while Miller says she did. Elsewhere in the same article, one reporter—Todd Purdum—questioned Miller’s ability to operate outside the rules and bounds set for other reporters. Diana Henriques said: “[S]he and others at the paper took “great pride and comfort” in how The Times stood by Ms. Miller. But she said the episode and speculation surrounding it “left a lot of people feeling confused and anxious” about Ms. Miller’s role in the investigation. And in Bill Keller’s October 21 memo he quotes Dick Stevenson, who suggests that the paper’s support of Miller didn’t match her commitment to conducting herself in way that was consistent with the highest practice of journalism.
The other interesting tidbit is that she says she went to jail in part to dramatize the need for a federal shield law, which gives the reader the sense that this might have been more of a grandstanding stunt rather than necessary suffering to protect a promise to a source.
Will Judith Miller turn her website in a blog? That would be an interesting twist.
[Note: Earlier in the day, Henriques quote from the Times story was inadvertently linked Purdum’s. That has been corrected here.]
She said that in the few hours since her departure had been made public, she had received several offers “of all kinds” for future employment, which she declined to specify. But her immediate plans are to take some time off. She said that after her stint in jail, she was “hit with a 40-day tsunami” of criticism and needed a break, though she has scheduled several public appearances, including one last night.
So, what orgnization will hire her, and for what position?
The most revealing story in this whole saga may be the November 10 Washington Post piece. Reporter Lynne Duke paints a rich picture of Judith Miller, who she says she is, and who others think she is. It’s a fascinating picture in light of all that’s gone on.
So here we are last week in a SoHo brasserie called Balthazar, where a parade of Judys appears. Outraged Judy. Saddened Judy. Charming Judy. Wise Judy. Conspiratorial Judy. Judy, the star New York Times reporter turned beleaguered victim of the gossipmongers and some journalists who have made her “sick to death of the regurgitation of lies and easily checkable falsehoods.” That’s why she’s agreed to talk.
Posted by JennyD at November 5, 2005 12:42 PM Print