Sunday, October 16, 2005

2¢ Plame #2

Church, lunch, retrieve a stalled car, and a blustery bike ride after a week hiding from the sodden, soaked roads, all together steeled me for a reread of the New York Times coverage of Judith Miller. There are fascinating implications that have nothing to do with sleazy White House types and everything to do with the Times in particular and journalism in general.

Sources

The main piece is here. The sketch of it is in a post here. The main piece is well worth reading for nuance as well as facts. The Miller Case: A Notebook, A Cause, a Jail Cell and a Deal (odd capitalization courtesy of the Times) was by staffers Don Van Natta Jr., Adam Liptak and Clifford J. Levy. They don't hide the dissatisfaction of the reporters and ex-editors.

The feds will or will not get indictments out of this whole mess. Regardless, George the Lesser's administration seems headed for history as another Harding, scandal-ridden fetid heap. Judy Miller's notebooks and 85 days on a detention-center concrete floor will maybe remain visible as a footnote.

Almost any TV show or movie with reporters has a ham-handed caricature of them. They steal the deceased's only portrait photo from the recent widow's mantle. They tromp through the flowers of the parents of the kidnapped child. They...well, whatever; you know the sensationalist view of the press.

Unfortunately, the bungling of this reporter and her editors and maybe even her publisher obscure real problems with the Old Gray Lady and other newspapers.

Rusty Judy

Miller actually had a very strong case for claiming privilege with a confidential source. Likewise, Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and Executive Editor Bill Keller (as well as the editorial board) have had a long-held, well-grounded stake in a federal shield law. If Miller was not so rusty with the oxides of pimping for the Bush administration, their arguments would have had the self-righteous zeal of a John Peter Zenger case or a Lou Grant episode. We who went to J-school and were reporters before becoming mere mortals still have those First Amendment corpuscles carrying ethics and honor to our brains.

Instead, as today's main Miller megillah reveals, she came with a lot of baggage and people confuse the issues in the smell of her leavings. For example, there was a reek of:
  • Sulzberger and Executive Editor Bill Keller let her keep a position apart and above other writers, even other investigative reporters
  • They probably let her bypass her editor for story approval
  • She put them in an extremely undesirable position of knowing much about her work that they had to keep from other Times staffers
  • She wove in and out of government security clearances as an embedded war reporter, confusing what her editors could ask and sources could reveal
  • She was arrogant even compared with a newsroom of egotistic NYT reporters, enough to alienate colleagues
  • She announced that she could do whatever she wanted, which was probably accurate
  • She was by how she described her grand-jury testimony a very sloppy reporter (no attribution to important notes and forgetting which of several sources provided this or that name)
So, instead of playing Lancelot, the Times has to defend even its most reasoned and reasonable editorials. Its reporting pool sees the Washington Post and other papers scoop it repeatedly on Miller's story. Veteran reporters and editors are torn between the obvious need for shield laws and the venality of their editors and publisher's treatment of a dilettante.

The Times Conundrum

This may be Jayson Blair redux. The Times is even more incestuous, nepotistic and aristocratic than most major dailies. They dub their reporters as the best-of-the-best and pretend that they all have the ethics of a saint, the wisdom of Athena, the reasoning of Socrates, and the insight of a psychic. In fact, most of them are private-school and ivy-league twits who are pretty good at what they do, but used to inordinate praise and latitude from the playpen onward.

Granted, this is an usually ethical profession. Contrasted with lawyers, pipefitters, managers, programmers or physicians, reporters are unusual in that considering ethical implications is part of their training and daily lives.

So, how does a Judith Miller fit and what does a New York Times do about it all?

Miller's muddled involvement and self-absoption is unfortunate for many reasons. The worst is that she confuses the issue because of her moral sloppiness.

We cannot be her parents and teach her to play nice and respect others now. However, combined with the Blair fiasco, the Times and other media giants can consider a few key changes.

It is not enough that reporters think ethics. The editors and publisher have to beat on the rich kiddies who churn out their articles of record for the newspapers of record. Clearly Sulzberger, Keller and their peers have to monitor, manage and direct them. Trusting them without reservation is inane and delusional.

The same top dogs need to deal with the PR issue. The public, legislators and even many bloggers reflexively dump on reporters and newspaper editors. Many see our media as the rednecks, wetbacks or whatever other cruel stereotype you can insert (think Archie Bunker-speak).

All sides love to quote our most brilliant president, Thomas Jefferson. In office, he distrusted newspaper reports that were unfavorable. Yet, before and after being our chief executive, he would say, "Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost."

That is true enough and it is a deep pity, perhaps a tragedy even, that a case such as Miller's so muddles the related issues.

Yes, she was a trollop with her Iraqi coverage. Yet, her jailing for contempt remains separately another of many cases that screams for a federal shield law. In this era of Homeland Security, invasive government and control of what we read, hear and see, a free press has never, ever been more vital.

Damn you, Judith Miller, for being so dirty on Iraqi coverage. Wake up, Times management, for allowing out-of-control reporters. Bless you all for standing up when it counts most.

Now fix the broken stuff.

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