Miller is a blip to soured public
By ERIC DEGGANS
Published October 20, 2005
Ask some experts why the public seems uninterested in the mounting criticism of New York Times reporter Judith Miller, and their answer is simple: People already have a low opinion of the media's credibility.
But the New York Times' exhaustive account Sunday of Miller's role in the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity - outlining why she spent 85 days in jail resisting a subpoena to reveal her sources - did more than provide the "Gray Lady's" critics with ammunition to attack the paper's credibility.
The story also revealed why Miller's case has become such a hot button issue for journalists - who suspect the paper spent millions to support a flawed reporter manipulated by her White House source - but hasn't galvanized many outside the Fourth Estate, who pollsters say give reporters less credit for ethics and credibility than they give themselves.
Some journalism experts say more disclosure from the New York Times sooner in the case might have helped.
"I would like to have seen this kind of transparency earlier in the process," said Jon Ziomek, an associate professor of journalism at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism in Illinois. "Sadly, Miss Miller did not make her case very well, which doesn't help the situation."
The New York Times' 5,800-word story was brutal in its honesty, revealing that Miller says she can't remember who originally told her Plame's name, though it wasn't the one source she did disclose: vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Still, significant questions remain - raising doubts that the New York Times can ever be totally honest with readers, given the current legal environment.
In an accompanying, 3,500-word, first-person account of her grand jury testimony, Miller admitted agreeing to identify Libby only as a "former Hill staffer," apparently to further disguise his identity. And she said the military granted her "clearance to see secret information" while embedded with a unit in Iraq, raising questions about her objectivity.
The story also noted New York Times editor Bill Keller and publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. largely ceded control of the legal case to Miller - a headstrong reporter criticized for helping write stories on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that seemed to bolster the Bush administration's case for war.
"My dominant reaction was, "Gosh, didn't they learn anything from this Jayson Blair business ...?"' said Don Wycliff, public editor for the Chicago Tribune, referring to the serial plagiarist at the heart of the last scandal to shake the New York Times in 2003. "You've got this woman and her editors putting their own company on the line, American journalism on the line, and nobody asked her any questions."
Barbara Crossette, a journalist who retired in 2001 after 28 years at the New York Times, blames much of Miller's problems on a "cult of celebrity among journalists" she witnessed over two decades at the newspaper.
"It began to play out in the newsroom with people who had privileges and could get away with breaking rules ... or people who could bully their way into print with stories editors had qualms about," said Crossette, who admitted occasional friction with Miller while heading the New York Times United Nations bureau.
This may sound like a lot of inside baseball to the average reader - perhaps because they already assume journalists are taking such liberties in their work.
"I think what strikes readers is that, for the second time in three years, the New York Times has made a big splash about some transgression of their own ... and if they're doing it, we're all probably doing it," said Wycliff, who also serves as chair of the ethics and values committee for the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
Wycliff's observations are echoed by pollsters who note that scandals such as those involving Miller or Blair don't often bring large swings in public opinion.
In 2002 the Pew Research Center for People and the Press found 60 percent of Americans believe news organizations were unwilling to admit their errors and 59 percent believed news organizations were politically biased. In June, a poll showed 60 percent still believed news outlets were politically biased; a survey last year found 54 percent of respondents believed what they read in their daily newspapers.
"Jayson Blair, to everyone's surprise, that case did not resonate too deeply with the public," said Carol Dougherty, associate director at the Pew Research Center. "I can't imagine the public is tuned into (Miller's) role very widely." But Dougherty also documented a paradox: About 80 percent of Americans gave favorable ratings to their daily newspaper, local TV newscasts and cable TV news networks.
"They like the product, but they criticize the way the news media does its work ... including some of the elements people view as partisan," Dougherty said.
One person who hasn't let the New York Times' reporting dim her support of Miller is Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporter's Committee for Freedom of the Press.Dalglish rejected much of the criticism directed at Miller, saying pundits should focus on the principle of protecting a source. Miller made that case herself Wednesday before Congress, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee for a federal shield law to help journalists keep sources confidential.
"If reporters cannot protect their sources on a day-to-day basis, people will not have the information they need to practice democracy," Dalglish said. "This case ... shows what happens to the independence of a newsroom when you allow a prosecutor to go in and hunt for sources."
Despite the involvement of high-profile journalists such as Miller and columnist Robert Novak (who actually disclosed Plame's name in print), it seems the public may not learn the full story unless prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald somehow reports it or indicts someone. Others say the most damaging aspect of Miller's part in the case may be to set back the shield law effort she had hoped to bolster.
"It wouldn't hurt us to be a little humble and to say we picked a broken vessel to be the bearer of our hopes here," said Wycliff, who personally opposes a federal shield law. "It's time (for journalists) to eat some humble pie and be a bit more discerning about our methods, and a little less pompous in the future."