October 22, 2005

Dowd to Miller: Good Riddance!

If anyone continues to harbor any illusions about Judy Miller returning to the New York Times newsroom after her current leave, read today's column by Maureen Dowd (non-Times version.) It is an unflinching screed against Miller's arrogance, questionable journalistic ethics and apparent lack of honesty in her uncontrite first-person account about her questioning by special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald.

So hard does Dowd slam the door on Miller's departing backside that one has to wonder how much of a proxy Dowd's anger and disgust is for the rest of the Times' staff - including editor Bill Keller who released a staff memo via Romenesko on Friday in which he expresses regret over his and the paper's tolerance of Miller's "Ms. Run Amok" behavior, both regarding the Plame leak investigation and her pre-war reporting on weapons of mass destruction.

Dowd's kicker graf says it all (my emphasis):

"Judy told The Times that she plans to write a book and intends to return to the newsroom, hoping to cover "the same thing I've always covered - threats to our country." If that were to happen, the institution most in danger would be the newspaper in your hands."

Rarely, if ever, has there been such a public castigation by one journalist of a colleague.

Jeff Jarvis dissects the Dowd column more thoroughly than I'm going to, and also links to Ariana Huffington's plausible suggestion about the timing of Keller's lengthy expiation -- that "public editor, Barney Calame, is going to write a devastating critique of the Times and he wanted to do some pre-emptive self-flagellation."

The Miller fiasco contains lessons for all journalists:

 We are not those we cover. Miller -characterized cattily by Dowd as given to "tropism toward powerful men" - forgot that axiom. In lunching with Scooter Libby, hobnobbing with Ahmad Chalabi or hiking with Huffington and others in the punditocracy, Miller conflated her identity with theirs, abandoning principle in favor of political parlor games whose elitist rules allowed Libby to suggest and Miller to agree that they hoodwink the public by identifying him misleadingly as a ""former Hill staffer."

 Everyone needs an editor. Miller's hauteur - to use Dowd's description - drove away editors, eventually to her own demise. With no one in authority to call BS on her, she drank her own Kool-Aid once too often.

 Editors get paid to edit. Keller admitted that Miller "kept kind of drifting on her own back into the national security realm" after he told her to stay away from those stories. His primary job is to set direction for the Times. He didn't. Too much daily journalism is haphazard instead of directed - or, better put, intentional. An editor's principal job is to outline goals, create the conditions and provide the resources needed to achieve them, and keep people on track. [Read: Building the Journalism of the Future, Intentionally.]

 We are all fallible. Mistakes happen. Some big, like WMD and Miller. Some small, like these. Correct them quickly, explain what happened when necessary and move on.

 Anonymous sources will eventually burn you. Giving a source anonymity is sometimes necessary and to the public benefit. Most often, though, it's not. Anonymity occludes transparency and motivation, lessens credibility (45 percent of American's believe little or nothing of what's in newspapers), and transfers the balance of power from the reporter to the source, because without overt documentation of an assertion or an opinion the unidentified source holds the power to confirm or deny what's reported. [Read: Newsweek Flushes Credibility Down the Toilet.]

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Posted by Tim Porter at October 22, 2005 03:37 PM

Notwithstanding the value of your five lessons, don't you think it's funny that Maureen Dowd talks about someone else's "arrogance, questionable journalistic ethics and apparent lack of honesty"?

It sounds like a playground squabble, and I expect to hear Miller come back with "I'm rubber and you're glue. Everything you say bounces off me and sticks on you!"

After all, Dowd has been evidence of the Times' decline long before Miller was.

Posted by: Jan Bear on October 23, 2005 08:18 AM

We certainly need to understand and be constantly aware of criticism, shifts in public attitude and failings of the press. Please don't take this observation as another head-in-the-sand response from a media exec.

But we also must *not* to allow narrow, non-representative memes to take root unchallenged.

Yes, Pew researchers found that oft-cited 45% "little or nothing" number in June 2004.

And *this* is what they found in June 2005:

"Yet despite these criticisms, most Americans continue to say that they like mainstream news outlets. By wide margins, more Americans give favorable than unfavorable ratings to their daily newspaper (80%-20%), local TV news (79%-21%), and cable TV news networks (79%-21%), among those able to rate these organizations. The margin is only slightly smaller for network TV news (75%-25%).

"In fact, the favorable ratings for most categories of news organizations surpass positive ratings for President Bush and major political institutions the Supreme Court, Congress, and the two major political parties. Favorable ratings for daily newspapers, local TV news and network TV news have all remained fairly stable since July 2001, even as public attitudes toward the news media have declined. The exception to this pattern are large, nationally influential newspapers, such as the Washington Post and New York Times, whose favorable ratings have declined markedly."

This does *not* mean we don't have problems to address in mainstream media. Obviously, issues are particularly acute at the NYT. But we shouldn't distort the analysis by focusing exclusivly and insistently on narrow findings.

Posted by: Howard Weaver on October 23, 2005 08:36 AM
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