Doing the Right Thing  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   October/November 2005

Doing the Right Thing   

Keller’s mea culpa in the Judith Miller saga was admirable—and smart.

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


Props to Bill Keller.

His mea culpa over his handling of what has become the New York Times' Judith Miller nightmare was both the right thing and the smart thing to do.

Admitting that you've screwed up is never easy. It's exponentially harder when you're the boss at a revered (if flawed) American institution, and your mistakes have compounded that institution's problems.

The Times has never been what you would call a particularly transparent newspaper. Its From the Editors note about the misguided Wen Ho Lee coverage was tortured, grudging. Its awfully late guilty plea about the paper's WMD fiasco didn't even mention Miller.

But this time Keller was forthright, to the point. And there was none of the accepting-responsibility-but-not-blame that is so popular these days. No "mistakes were made." These, Keller said, were on me.

That's the way a true leader acts.

It was quite significant that Keller conceded that he had waited much too long to deal with the fact that the paper's — Miller's — WMD coverage in the run-up to the Iraq war was so deeply flawed (it happened on the watch of his predecessor, Howell Raines). As Keller said, the year-plus delay "fostered an impression that The Times put a higher premium on protecting its reporters than on coming clean with its readers."

And he also conceded what was so obvious in the Times' commendable Miller opus on October 16 — that he should have found out a great deal more about what had transpired before plunging the paper into a full-scale defense of the reporter's refusal to testify in the investigation of who leaked CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity.

There aren't, sadly, many mulligans in life, and Keller's welcome candor doesn't solve the Times' problems. As I wrote last week, the disturbing series of snafus in recent years raises serious questions about the paper's culture and structure.

But it's an important step on the road to recovery. You can't clean up a mess until you acknowledge that you have one.

As for Miller, her behavior is increasingly beyond the pale. She has gone completely off the reservation that had embraced her so avidly.

Keller said in his memo that the embattled reporter "seems to have misled" her bureau chief about whether anyone had told her that Plame was a CIA operative. He also said he may have acted differently if he had known about Miller's "entanglement" with her source in the Plame case, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr., the vice president's chief of staff.

Miller lashed out at her boss' comments as "seriously inaccurate." She also provided Times media writer Kit Seelye with a copy of an e-mail she had sent to Keller in which she denied there had been any "entanglement" with Libby.

That makes her future at the Times completely untenable. You just don't compound all the problems you've caused your paper by flat-out telling your boss he's wrong — in public. It sounds like maybe Miller has brought on Philadelphia Eagles problem child Terrell Owens as her strategist.

So it's awfully hard to see how this marriage could be — or should be — saved. This aspen has turned. As Jonathan Landman might put it, they've got to stop Judith Miller from writing for the Times. Right now.

###