"Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please." (Mark Twain)

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Crocodile Tears 

Yellow journals like the New York Journal and the New York World relied on sensationalist headlines to sell newspapers. William Randolph Hearst understood that a war with Cuba would not only sell his papers, but also move him into a position of national prominence. From Cuba, Hearst's star reporters wrote stories designed to tug at the heartstrings of Americans. Horrific tales described the situation in Cuba--female prisoners, executions, valiant rebels fighting, and starving women and children figured in many of the stories that filled the newspapers. But it was the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana Harbor that gave Hearst his big story--war. After the sinking of the Maine, the Hearst newspapers, with no evidence, unequivocally blamed the Spanish, and soon U.S. public opinion demanded intervention.

Today, historians point to the Spanish-American War as the first press-driven war. Although it may be an exaggeration to claim that Hearst and the other yellow journalists started the war, it is fair to say that the press fueled the public's passion for war. Without sensational headlines and stories about Cuban affairs, the mood for Cuban intervention may have been very different. At the dawn of the twentieth century, the United States emerged as a world power, and the U.S. press proved its influence.

-From Crucible of Empire: The Spanish-American War (PBS Online)

So, it's come to this: Judith Miller, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times, is now incarcerated at the same Alexandria, Virginia facility that Zacarias Moussaoui calls home. The deep ambivalence of many on the Left is typified by this thoughtful post at The Whiskey Bar:
As a former journalist, I have profoundly mixed feelings about this case. I had sources -- not many, but a few -- who risked their jobs to tell me things off the record and I never gave one of them up.

Of course, nobody ever asked me to give them up or threatened me with contempt if I didn't. But still -- the principle that a reporter should NEVER, under any circumstances, burn a confidential source is deeply engraved in my own personal sense of ethics.

So all other things being equal, I'm inclined to swallow hard and support Miller -- and then close my eyes and try to pretend this is really the Pentagon Papers case and the guy Miller's protecting is actually Daniel Ellsberg, not the A number 1 conservative sleazeball in Washington.

But then I saw this:

"I know that the freest and fairest societies are those with a free press . . . publishing information that the government does not want to reveal," [Miller] said. She compared her effort to that of U.S. troops risking death in their fight for freedom in Iraq: "If they can do that, surely I can face prison to defend a free press."

[...]

When I read Miller's little speech, I'm afraid something snapped. Fuck journalistic principles. I was glad Judge Hogan locked the bitch up -- I only wished he'd thrown the key away. And since we're dealing with a critical national security threat here -- after all, there's a traitor running around the White House making things easier for nuclear terrorists -- it occurred to me that a few stress positions might be in order for a high value detainee like Miller, or maybe a little of the Fear Up Harsh approach -- with a nice lemon chicken dinner afterwards, of course.

I've since calmed down a little bit, but I still feel the same way about Miller. I want her to pay for what she did -- not to Plame (she never even took Rove's bait) but to the American people she helped manipulate. And if the only way to do that is with a contempt citation, well, my heart says "bring it on."

But it bothers my head that my heart is so casual about ditching long and deeply held principles. So I've been doing a little rationalizing, to see if I could come up with something more substantial than moral disgust to justify putting Judy Miller behind bars.

Others have had much less difficulty justifying their glee at Miller's downfall - or, at least, their willingness to accept it:
Today, we realized that the "slippery slope" argument is wrong, and so were we. We're not happy that Judy Miller is going to jail, but we think -- in this case -- that if she won't cooperate with the grand jury, then it's the right thing.

That's because Judy Miller's actions in recent years -- a pattern that includes this case -- have been the very antithesis of what we think journalism is and should be all about. Ultimately, the heart and soul of real journalism is not so much protecting "sources" at any cost. It is, rather, living up to the 19th Century maxim set forth by Peter Finley Dunne, that journalists should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

That is why the ability of reporters to keep the identity of their true sources confidential is protected by shield laws in 31 states and the District of Columbia (although not in federal courts). Without such protections, the government official would not be able to report the wrongdoing of a president (remember "Deep Throat," the ultimate confidential source?), nor would the corporate executive feel free to rat out a crooked CEO. The comfortable and corrupt could not be afflicted.

But the Times' Judy Miller has not been afflicting the comfortable. She has been protecting them, advancing their objectives, and helping them to mislead a now very afflicted American public. In fact, thinking again about Watergate and Deep Throat is a good way to understand why Judy Miller should not be protected today. Because in Watergate, a reporter acting like Miller would not be meeting the FBI's Mark Felt in an underground parking garage. She would be obsessively on the phone with H.R. Haldeman or John Dean, listening to malicious gossip about Carl Bernstein or their plans to make Judge Sirica look bad.

Clearly, Miller's history provides the necessary context for any discussion of her present situation. For the benefit of those readers who have had better things to do than follow Judy Miller's career, here are some useful data points:

The widespread disgust felt by so many at the mere mention of Miller's name results, of course, mostly from her role in beating the war drums in the days and weeks before our invasion of Iraq. It is probably not much of an exaggeration to call this "Judy's War," in exactly the same way that the Spanish-American conflict was "Hearst's War." From New York Magazine:
For critics of the Iraq war, the downfall of Ahmad Chalabi occasioned a hearty, unapologetic outpouring of Schadenfreude—a loud cheer for a well-deserved knee to the administration’s gut. In fact, it was possible to detect a bit of this spirit on the front page of the New York Times. On May 21, the editors arrayed contrasting images of the banker turned freedom fighter turned putative Iranian spy. Here he is smirking behind Laura Bush in the House of Representatives gallery as the president delivers his State of the Union address. There he is looking bleary and sweaty, after Iraqi police stormed his home and office in the middle of the night. An analysis by David Sanger went so far as to name names of individuals who had associated themselves with the discredited leader of the Iraqi National Congress. The list, he wrote, included “many of the men who came to dominate the top ranks of the Bush administration . . . Donald H. Rumsfeld, Paul D. Wolfowitz, Douglas J. Feith, Richard L. Armitage, Elliott Abrams and Zalmay M. Khalilzad, among others.”

The phrase “among others” is a highly evocative one. Because that list of credulous Chalabi allies could include the New York Times’ own reporter, Judith Miller. During the winter of 2001 and throughout 2002, Miller produced a series of stunning stories about Saddam Hussein’s ambition and capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction, based largely on information provided by Chalabi and his allies—almost all of which have turned out to be stunningly inaccurate.

For the past year, the Times has done much to correct that coverage, publishing a series of stories calling Chalabi’s credibility into question. But never once in the course of its coverage—or in any public comments from its editors—did the Times acknowledge Chalabi’s central role in some of its biggest scoops, scoops that not only garnered attention but that the administration specifically cited to buttress its case for war.

The longer the Times remained silent on Chalabi’s importance to Judith Miller’s reporting, the louder critics howled. In February, in the New York Review of Books, Michael Massing held up Miller as evidence of the press’s “submissiveness” in covering the war. For more than a year, Slate’s Jack Shafer has demanded the paper come clean.

But finally, with Chalabi’s fall from grace so complete—the Pentagon has cut off his funding, troops smashed his portrait in raids of the INC office—the Times’ refusal to concede its own complicity became untenable. Last week, on page A10, the paper published a note on its coverage, drafted by executive editor Bill Keller himself. The paper singled out pieces that relied on “information from a circle of Iraqi informants, defectors, and exiles bent on ‘regime change.’ ” The note named Ahmad Chalabi as a central player in this group.

This time, however, the omission of Judith Miller’s name was conspicuous. “Some critics of our coverage during that time have focused blame on individual reporters. Our examination, however, indicates that the problem was more complicated.”

The editor’s note was correct: The Judy Miller problem is complicated. That is, the very qualities that endeared Miller to her editors at the New York Times—her ambition, her aggressiveness, her cultivation of sources by any means necessary, her hunger to be first—were the same ones that allowed her to get the WMD story so wrong.

Miller is a star, a diva. She wrote big stories, won big prizes. Long before her WMD articles ran, Miller had become a newsroom legend—and for reasons that had little to do with the stories that appeared beneath her byline. With her seemingly bottomless ambition—a pair of big feet that would stomp on colleagues in her way and even crunch a few bystanders—she cut a larger-than-life figure that lent itself to Paul Bunyan–esque retellings. Most of these stories aren’t kind. Of course, nobody said journalism was a country club. And her personality was immaterial while she was succeeding, winning a Pulitzer, warning the world about terrorism, bio-weapons, and Iraq’s war machine. But now, who she is, and why she prospered, makes for a revealing cautionary tale about the culture of American journalism....

Before September 11, Miller, with her anxieties about anthrax attacks, could seem like Chicken Little; afterward, she seemed more liked Cassandra, the only one who’d been right. And this fact gave her tremendous power at the paper. Eight months before the attacks, she published a piece documenting Al Qaeda’s WMD ambitions—part of a series that later earned her (along with several colleagues) a Pulitzer. Germs, a book about bioterrorism co-written with two Times colleagues, appeared less than a month after the attacks and soon hit the best-seller list. She began making regular appearances on CNN and PBS, becoming a public face of the paper—a celebrity that grimly solidified when she received a hoax letter at her desk containing a white, powdery substance resembling anthrax.

What’s more, she had spent several decades acquiring access to Washington’s Middle East experts, some of whom suddenly wielded tremendous influence in the Bush administration. Miller’s many doubters at the Times were effectively silenced. She had emerged as one of the paper’s biggest stars, with the kind of “competitive metabolism” that new editor Howell Raines—he’d taken over from Joseph Lelyveld the week before 9/11—made into a crusade. According to a friend of Raines’s, as well as one of Miller’s colleagues at the paper, the editor pulled her aside after the attacks. “Go win a Pulitzer,” he told her.

For the next two years, she supplied the paper with a string of grim exclusives. There was the defector who described Saddam Hussein’s recent renovation of storage facilities for nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. There was her report that a Russian virologist might have handed the regime a particularly virulent strain of smallpox. To protect themselves against VX and sarin, she further reported, the Iraqis had greatly increased the importation of an antidote to these agents. And, most memorably, she co-wrote a piece in which administration officials suggested that Iraq had attempted to import aluminum tubes for nuclear weapons. Vice-President Dick Cheney trumpeted the story on Meet the Press, closing the circle. Of course, each of the stories contained important caveats. But together they painted a horrifying picture. There was just one problem with them: The vast majority of these blockbusters turned out to be wrong.

Miller's deep personal involvement in the war continued, well after the invasion itself. From the Washington Post:
New York Times reporter Judith Miller played a highly unusual role in an Army unit assigned to search for dangerous Iraqi weapons, according to U.S. military officials, prompting criticism that the unit was turned into what one official called a "rogue operation."

More than a half-dozen military officers said that Miller acted as a middleman between the Army unit with which she was embedded and Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi, on one occasion accompanying Army officers to Chalabi's headquarters, where they took custody of Saddam Hussein's son-in-law. She also sat in on the initial debriefing of the son-in-law, these sources say.

Since interrogating Iraqis was not the mission of the unit, these officials said, it became a "Judith Miller team," in the words of one officer close to the situation.

In April, Miller wrote a letter objecting to an Army commander's order to withdraw the unit, Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha, from the field. She said this would be a "waste" of time and suggested that she would write about it unfavorably in the Times. After Miller took up the matter with a two-star general, the pullback order was dropped....

One military officer, who says that Miller sometimes "intimidated" Army soldiers by invoking Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld or Undersecretary Douglas Feith, was sharply critical of the note. "Essentially, she threatened them," the officer said, describing the threat as that "she would publish a negative story."

An Army officer, who regarded Miller's presence as "detrimental," said: "Judith was always issuing threats of either going to the New York Times or to the secretary of defense. There was nothing veiled about that threat," this person said, and MET Alpha "was allowed to bend the rules."

Another interesting, and heretofore under-reported, story relates to Miller's previous dealings with the same special prosecutor who is pursuing her today. From Josh Marshall:
Don't forget: This isn't the first time Plame prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has tangled with Judy Miller while investigating a leak out of the Bush White House.

A little more than a year ago, I reported on TPM how Fitzgerald had quite aggressively investigated another Bush White House leak in late 2001 and early 2002. Fitzgerald had been investigating three Islamic charities accused of supporting terrorism -- the Holy Land Foundation, the Global Relief Foundation, and the Benevolence International Foundation. But just before his investigators could swoop in with warrants, two of the charities in question got wind of what was coming and, apparently, were able to destroy a good deal of evidence.

What tipped them off were calls from two reporters at the New York Times who'd been leaked information about the investigation by folks at the White House.

One of those two reporters was Judy Miller.

It is perhaps shocking to hear of a journalist so personally involved in the subject of her own reportage, but Miller's questionable association with policymakers dates back more than a decade. Indeed, in 1990 - that is, before the first Gulf War, Miller co-wrote Saddam Hussein & the Crisis in the Gulf with Laurie Mylroie, the American Enterprise Institute "scholar" beloved by the likes of Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, John Bolton, and Lewis "Scooter" Libby (Dick Cheney's chief of staff). Mylroie famously "believes that Saddam was not only behind the '93 Trade Center attack, but also every anti-American terrorist incident of the past decade, from the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania to the leveling of the federal building in Oklahoma City to September 11 itself."

No one who loves the First Amendment could possibly look at this case without some mixed feelings. Even if one believes, as I do, that Judith Miller's conduct leading up to the current war represents an affront to everything the "free press" ought to stand for - well, that's the nature of the First Amendment, isn't it? The history of free expression in America has largely been the story of obnoxious, even dangerous, people, testing the limits of our tolerance. But, make no mistake - there are limits; the challenge is drawing them in a principled way such that our favored points of view receive no more protection than opinions we find repugnant. These are never easy lines to draw, but we draw them all the time. Copyright infringement, child pornography, insider trading, libel, threats against the President's life - all of these restrictions depend on carefully drawn restrictions on absolutely free expression, and few people would argue that such restrictions are always repugnant to the spirit of the First Amendment. So, draw the line for yourself wherever you will - and if, upon careful reflection, you believe that the First Amendment requires an absolute privilege for a reporter to shield her sources even when those sources have used her as an accomplice in an act of treason (for the revelation of Valerie Plame's identity and mission, very likely resulting in the death of American intelligence assets overseas and the destruction of a painstakingly assembled network of sources and operatives that cannot be repaired easily, if at all, is nothing less than treason) - well, I must respectfully disagree. I will shed no tears, real or feigned, for Judith Miller as she sits in her cell in Virginia.

 

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