Whos in Charge?  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   October/November 2005

Whos in Charge?   

The Miller affair, like previous Times fiascoes, raises questions about the paper's editing and decision-making.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


This flap isn't about Judy Miller. It's about the New York Times.

There's too much in the paper's excellent Miller tick-tock that echoes previous meltdowns.

Most disturbing is the sense that the Times at times is a ship without a skipper, or, better yet, an asylum run by the inmates. Strong leadership and editorial oversight seem hard to come by.

Take the almost casual way the paper decided to put itself at the center of such an important, high-profile legal battle one that cost the paper millions of dollars and immeasurable credibility and trust. Yet Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and Executive Editor Bill Keller didn't trouble themselves to find out much about Miller's dealings with her confidential source, I. Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff.

Said the Times takeout, "Interviews show that the paper's leaders, in taking what they considered to be a principled stand, ultimately left the major decisions in the case up to Ms. Miller, an intrepid reporter whom editors found hard to control.

" 'This car had her hand on the wheel because she was the one at risk,' " Mr. Sulzberger said.

Or the image that emerges of Miller the reporter, a free agent operating on her own, paying little heed to her nominal bosses.

Douglas Frantz, a former Times investigative editor, recalls Miller referring to herself as "Miss Run Amok." Frantz replied, according to the Times account, " 'What does that mean?' " And Miller said " 'I can do whatever I want.' "

Or consider the following passage:

"Within a few weeks, in one of his first personnel moves, Mr. Keller told Ms. Miller that she could no longer cover Iraq and weapons issues. Even so, Mr. Keller said, 'she kept kind of drifting on her own back into the national security realm.' "

Judy the force of nature, something beyond the control of mere mortals, even those who serve as New York Times executive editors.

It's long been an article of faith that the Times is our best newspaper. And day after day, it is packed with first-rate journalism. Its commitment to foreign and national coverage is nonpareil. Its front page is often adorned by really interesting stories you won't see anywhere else.

And yet, in recent years, the Times has wobbled from one debacle to another, raising huge questions about the way decisions are made at both the newspaper and its parent company.

Think back to 1999, when the Times ran a breathless series of stories about a Los Alamos physicist named Wen Ho Lee. Lee was linked to an espionage operation that a key source described as "as bad as the Rosenbergs."

But it wasn't, far from it. When the case collapsed, it was a huge embarrassment for the paper. The Times was forced to concede that its editors had failed miserably when they allowed this runaway train to careen out of control. So what happened? The blame, the Times said in a From the Editors note, "lies principally with those who directed the coverage, for not raising questions that occurred to us only later." It was, in fact, a massive breakdown of the editing process.

In 2001, Joseph Lelyveld stepped down as executive editor of the Times, and Sulzberger had the important task of picking his successor. He turned to Howell Raines, the fire-breathing editor of the Times' editorial pages.

Raines got off to a fantastic start as the paper won an astonishing, record-setting total of seven Pulitzer Prizes in 2002 in the wake of the September 11 attacks. But Raines' regime was largely a disaster. His penchant for buzz-creating stories resulted in such embarrassments as the saturation, World War III-style coverage of the refusal of the Augusta National Golf Club to admit women. Meanwhile, Raines' bullying, favoritism-rife management style drove morale to unfathomable depths.

And it was on Raines' watch that the paper gave page-one play to stories, many by Miller, about Saddam Hussein's purported weapons of mass destruction. The articles played a significant role in buttressing the Bush administration's case for invading Iraq. But, as everyone now knows, there weren't any WMD.

Once again the Times had some explaining to do, although it didn't do so for quite awhile. It said in another From the Editors note in May 2004, "Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper. Accounts of Iraqi defectors were not always weighed against their strong desire to have Saddam Hussein ousted. Articles based on dire claims about Iraq tended to get prominent display, while follow-up articles that called the original ones into question were sometimes buried. In some cases, there was no follow-up at all."

Reporter Miller has been widely pummeled, and justly so, for her role in the fiasco. But, again, the editing process had failed, big time.

The Raines era, of course, came to an abrupt and unlamented end with the Jayson Blair scandal, which starred a young, in-over-his-head journalist with a knack for plagiarism and fabrication.

There were plenty of warning signs with Blair from the get-go. "We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now," Times editor Jonathan Landman famously wrote. But Jayson kept on writing.

To its credit, the Times published a meticulously researched and enormous account of Blair's misdeeds. It cast a merciless eye on the paper's shortcomings.

One episode stands out.

When Blair was assigned to cover the Washington sniper case, he "broke" a story that was instantly challenged as bogus by the prosecutor. And bogus the story turned out to be.

The story was based on anonymous sources. Who were these sources that a young reporter, brand new to Washington, had so quickly developed?

No one asked Blair before the story was published. Bad enough. But no one asked him after its validity was questioned.

Does this sound like the editing process we'd expect at America's best newspaper?

Soon Raines was history, and in July 2003 Sulzberger turned to Bill Keller, whom he had spurned in favor of Raines just two years earlier. Now Sulzberger and Keller find themselves embroiled in the Miller mess, beset by charges that they placed the lightning-rod reporter ahead of the readers and the Times itself.

I described Miller as "an American hero" when she went to jail rather than identify a confidential source to a grand jury investigating who unmasked CIA agent Valerie Plame. But the picture of the embattled reporter that emerges from the Times epic and her own piece on her grand jury testimony isn't very heroic.

Despite all of the trouble she has caused the paper with her WMD reporting and her ill-fated legal battle, she can't find it in herself to cooperate with the Times reporters telling her story.

According to the Times piece, "In two interviews, Ms. Miller generally would not discuss her interactions with editors, elaborate on the written account of her grand jury testimony or allow reporters to review her notes."

What she does tell us isn't always so helpful. So how come "Valerie Flame" was written in the same notebook as notes from an interview with Libby? Libby told her, right? Hard to say. Said the Times: "Ms. Miller said she 'didn't think' she heard it from him. 'I said I believed the information came from another source, whom I could not recall,' she wrote." Thanks, Judy. That clears it up.

Then there's her after-the-fact willingness to change the way she's going to ID Libby from "senior administration official" to "former Hill staffer." That sure helps the reader along.

It goes on and on.

Someone once described the clarinet as an ill wind that nobody blows good.

This is a tawdry saga that makes nobody look good.

###