On Native Ground
'MISS RUN AMOK' TAKES DOWN THE NEW YORK TIMES
by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- If you read the belated account of the Judith Miller affair in this past Sunday's New York Times, you received confirmation of the biggest problem in journalism - reporters who compromise their independence in exchange for access.
Miller's role in the scandal over the deliberate leak of a CIA agent's identity by members of the Bush administration to exact revenge on her husband, a critic of the Iraq invasion, is reprehensible enough on its own.
The bigger scandal was that Miller, who wrote about defense and national security issues for the Times, was granted a Department of Defense security clearance while she was embedded with the teams searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003.
Miller, who wrote many less than credible articles about Iraq's alleged nuclear, chemical and biological weapons caches for the Times before the March 2003 invasion, apparently accepted this security clearance in exchange for access. It is still unclear whether Miller told her editors about this, or whether she was allowed to.
The implications of this are huge. It's akin to licensing journalists. It's putting the government ahead of the reader's right to know. It's allowing a reporter, someone who is supposed to be independent and objective, to be totally the opposite and not let the readers on to the changing of sides.
Miller spent 85 days in jail for refusing to reveal her source - the person who leaked to her CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity. The Times tried to paint Miller as a First Amendment martyr, but it turned out they were protecting a reporter who called herself "Miss Run Amok" because, as Miller put it, "I can do whatever I want."
Despite the supposed controls that were put in place after Times reporter Jayson Blair was exposed as a serial plagiarist and fabricator, Miller was still allowed to do what she wanted, even after her editor and protector, Howell Raines, had been forced out. Even though she was taken off the national security beat by new Executive Editor Bill Keller in July 2003, Miller was still reporting on those issues on her own. This was how Miller would become entangled in the Plame affair.
Miller long denied that she was one of the six journalists to whom Plame's identity was leaked. Who was she protecting? I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff. And to her, it turned out it was more important to proect him than come clean to her editors that he was the primary source of the leak.
Neither Keller nor publisher Arthur Sulzberger asked Miller any detailed questions about her conversations with Libby or looked at her notes. While Keller knew that Libby was the source of the leak, he declined to share that information with anyone else in the Times' newsroom and apparently blocked his own reporters from trying to investigate the Plame case.
This is why I always laugh when I hear the Times described as a liberal newspaper. Sure, on the "God, guns and gays" front of the culture wars, the Times is on the liberal side. But when it comes to the issues that truly matter - national security and corporate power - the Times, like virtually every other newspaper in America, comes down on the other side.
Because of its unique status as the last serious newspaper in America (for now, we'll leave aside the recent front page stories on toilet training infants and beer pong and the Sunday Styles section), the Times is held to a higher standard. It sets the news agenda. We know that many news operations would come to a grinding halt if the Times disappeared, because of this. But the Times is also a staunch defender of the status quo when it comes to national security and corporate power.
When it's all said and done, the Times allowed a reporter on a critical beat to become way too cozy with the people she was covering. It allowed that reporter to write stories on Iraq and WMDs that did not pass the smell test. It allowed that reporter to stay cozy with those sources, even after she supposedly was taken off the national security beat. It stonewalled its own reporters trying investigate what happened, and allowed them to be scooped on a story about one of their colleagues.
Is the Times permanently tarnished by the Miller affair? No more or no less than it has been by its other notable errors of the past few years. They may apologize more than they used to. They may now have an ombudsman (after years of pooh-poohing the idea). They may be slightly more transparent than they used to be. It's still the Times, and it still is the paper for the elite that high-end advertisers flock to. But anyone who depends upon it as a source of honest and thorough news coverage on national security issues is a fool.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 25 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.