Miller puts integrity of the Times on the line

October 26, 2005|By NICK MADIGAN | NICK MADIGAN,SUN REPORTER

Ten days after The New York Times published a voluminous account that sought to clarify reporter Judith Miller's role in the CIA-leak case, the newspaper, widely considered the country's finest, finds itself ever more deeply embroiled in a controversy over the veteran staffer's actions.

The fiasco comes just as the Times seemed to have emerged from the furor over Jayson Blair, whose serial fabrications prompted the firings in 2003 of its two top editors and led to searing criticism of the publication.

That imbroglio forced a reappraisal of newsroom policies and a redrawing of the paper's ethical standards. Now, the Miller affair has forced the paper's management, which for months had portrayed her as steadfastly upholding the journalistic tradition of protecting sources, to publicly distance the institution from its reporter. It also has sharply refocused attention on precisely the same problem that bedeviled the Blair affair, namely, a lack of supervision over reporters with agendas of their own. More significantly, it has led to questions about how the Times could repair its damaged credibility.

"The immediate question is Judy Miller. The larger question is, has the Times been manipulated? Why did that happen, and why shouldn't we think it'll happen again?" asked Alex S. Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Times reporter who is now director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. (Nick Madigan, who covers the media for The Sun, has also reported for the Times.)

Some of the Times' detractors say its editors failed to properly question Miller while she insisted on protecting a source - I. Lewis Libby Jr., Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff - who had sought to smear a critic of the Bush administration's rationale for invading Iraq. Miller spent 85 days in jail before revealing Libby's identity, with his permission, to a grand jury.

Senior editors at the Times - including, by his own admission, its executive editor, Bill Keller - failed to elicit from Miller several key facts about her association with Libby that, in retrospect, might have lessened the unstinting support she received from the paper. A special prosecutor was appointed to determine who had leaked the name of the CIA agent.

Miller, in a first-person account in the Times on Oct. 16, acknowledged that the agent's name appeared in the same notebook that she had used to record a meeting with Libby, but said Libby was not the source for the name. She could not recall who was.

From her explanation, it became apparent that Miller had been less than clear with her editors. She also initially failed to tell them that she was one of the Washington reporters who had been given the name of the CIA agent, Valerie Plame Wilson.

Miller is also faulted for agreeing to identify Libby only as a former Capitol Hill staff member instead of as a Bush administration official, which would have shifted the focus of the investigation away from the White House.

But the questions over Miller's performance go back years, most notably to her reporting on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, which was later found to be largely false. She has also antagonized colleagues at the Times, some of whom do not trust her reporting methods.

"There are a group of people who have always been able to get away with murder at the Times," Jeremy Gerard, a former Times reporter who worked alongside Miller for about two years, said yesterday. "It has to get its house in order."

Gerard, now the articles editor for Radar magazine, wrote yesterday in its online edition that the trashing of Miller by some of her colleagues in the last few days was "unseemly."

"If I were Judy Miller," said Jones, the former Times reporter, "I would send a message to Bill Keller saying, `There are clearly questions that I need to address. My credibility is at stake; the credibility of The New York Times is at stake. Let me sit down with you, or with an editor you designate, and I will answer all the questions. Let the chips fall where they may.'

"It would be a significant step in the right direction," said Jones, who co-authored a book on the Sulzberger family, longtime publishers of the paper. "You restore your credibility by leveling. In the long term, if they let this subside, it will be a terrible thing. It will linger as an unlanced boil. If the Times doesn't have that unequivocal, high-ground moral authority, it is severely weakened."

Miller's own belated explanation of her role in the CIA-leak case has caused her most stalwart supporters, including publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. and Keller, to publicly question her actions.

Although Miller did not write a story about the Plame case, she said she pushed her bureau chief in Washington at the time, Jill Abramson, to allow her to do so. Abramson says otherwise. Now one of the paper's two managing editors, Abramson declined to be interviewed for this article.

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