October 17, 2005

Judy Miller: What a Horribly Ordinary Affair

The curtain that hides the wizardry of the New York Times - already well tatterered by the dissection of the newsroom's managerial dysfunction that led to l'affaire Blair - was shredded further Sunday by the paper's nearly-6,000 word piece on Judy Miller and Miller's own 3,500-word first-person accompaniment.

Plenty of people are debating the larger issues revealed in those two full printed pagers (see Jeff Jarvis and Jay Rosen for good thinking and linking), but what I saw in the recounting of the events that led to Miller's 85 days of imprisonment was a set of conditions that exist in newspapers from Seattle to Savannah and reveal the Times to be just another member - a vaunted one, albeit - of a press club whose misfortunes derive mostly from its own misdeeds.

Put another way: How ordinary, how sadly ordinary the Times is.

The Miller saga is a tale of miscommunication, mismanagement and missed opportunities. It is the story of a reporter who evaded management and of managers who chose not to control her.

It is also a lesson in the craft of journalism, specifically of the fallibility of note-taking and the need to get things out of the notebook as soon as possible or face the fact that memory fades and meaning becomes elusive as notes grow stale. Miller, to her embarrassment, was forced to testify before a federal grand jury and later to Times readers that she couldn't understand her own notes or recall where some of them had come from.

These are all common failings in the newspaper business and point, to say it again, to the ordinariness of the Times. Whatever veneer of uniqueness that clung to the Times after its expiation for Blair (and Seth Mnookin's autopsy of the Raines-Boyd administration), was stripped away by the Miller story.

Some examples (all emphasis mine). From the main story:

"And when the prosecutor in the case asked her to explain how 'Valerie Flame' appeared in the same notebook she used in interviewing Mr. Libby, 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 on Friday, recounting her testimony for an article that appears today."

Cannot recall? If this is not the balderdash it seems to be, then Miller is a sad figure indeed. Cannot recall the name of the person who spoke the words to you that resulted in a three-month prison? Didn't bother to write it down anywhere? Never sought confirmation from someone else? Are we to believe that Miller is told so many government secrets from so many anonymous sources that over time they all just morph together?

Cannot recall? Other journalists have been fired for relying on such lame the-dog-ate-my-homework excuses (even though Miller didn't write a story using "Flame's name.) Diana Griego Erwin, a Pulitzer winner like Miller, lost her job at the Sacramento Bee after she couldn't "recall" where she had allegedly interviewed people who appeared in her column.

From Miller's piece:

"I testified in Washington twice - most recently last Wednesday after finding a notebook in my office at The Times that contained my first interview with Mr. Libby."

Is Miller truly so disorganized - so sloppy - that she could not find, or could not remember she had, her notes from an interview with in which later she says she heard for the first time that Joseph Wilson's wife worked for the government? ("I wrote in my notes, inside parentheses, 'Wife works in bureau?' The prosecutor asked me whether the word 'bureau' might not mean the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Yes, I told him, normally. But Mr. Libby had been discussing the C.I.A., and therefore my impression was that he had been speaking about a particular bureau within the agency that dealt with the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. As to the question mark, I said I wasn't sure what it meant.")

This is not an ethical issue; this is a craft issue: A reporter who can't find her notes, then when she does locate them cannot decipher what they mean. How many times has this happened to Miller before? I suspect her previous editors would see a pattern here. Most reporters have distinct styles of working and organizing information. Miller's appears to be dangerously haphazard.

From the main story:

"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.'"

Here the key phrase is "drifting on her own." Bill Keller is executive editor of the Times, arguably the most powerful editor in American journalism. He tells a reporter to stay away from certain stories because her previous stories on weapons of mass destruction, to use Miller's own words, "got it totally wrong." The reporter ignores Keller. Apparently nothing happens. Dog barks. Tail wags. Dog shuts up.

In the main story, Stephen Engelberg, Miller's editor at the Times for six years now a managing editor at The Oregonian in Portland, says:

"Judy is a very intelligent, very pushy reporter. Like a lot of investigative reporters, Judy benefits from having an editor who's very interested and involved with what she's doing."

Translation: Without a strong editor, someone who's dogging Miller, she will do what she pleases.

The Miller story provides an object lesson in the dangers of sloppiness - sloppy management, sloppy note-taking, sloppy follow-through and, given the misplaced notebook, sloppy housekeeping. In short, sloppy journalism.

I am not nave enough to believe the Times, as an institution devoted to excellence, is completely beyond such ordinary failings. I did think, though, that they wouldn't be so prevalent at such a high level. I was wrong.

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Posted by Tim Porter at October 17, 2005 09:27 AM

Maybe she was sloppy, maybe not. But keep in mind that the details which are so important to Fitzgerald two years later were not at all central to the discussions she was having at the time.

Posted by: Hunter McDaniel on October 18, 2005 09:52 AM

I haven't been following this story all that closely, but it strikes me that not being able to make sense of one's notes several months later is an entirely reasonable outcome.

Every time I've picked up a reporter's misplaced notebook, I've noticed that the scrawlings inside might as well be in Swahili.

Posted by: tom on October 20, 2005 09:24 AM

After reading Lewis Libby's love letter to Judith Miller on the Times website informing her that she was free to speak about their conversations, my feelings that she was severley compromised intensified.

She should be fired.

Posted by: Gene Roman on October 20, 2005 01:36 PM

If the President of the United States lies about going to war and the NY Times helps him do it and the war goes on I would think we are sliding into 3rd world status and a galaxy away from the vision of Jefferson, Madison & Lincoln.

We actually are ranked with the 3rd world nations when it comes to poverty but we could always point to our founders as evidence of our political maturity. The Times and the White House have shown us otherwise
Jim Greene

Posted by: jim greene on October 22, 2005 06:24 AM
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