WHAT IS A REPORTER to do? You cultivate your sources, you till fertile ground. You get the good dirt. Then you print the manure. In the case of Judith Miller and the New York Times reporting on government, reporting access leads to excess. Seeming smooth writing coming to right conclusions hides the rough trade of “journalism” today. The reporter wants access to all he can get from a “source.” The source gets all he can from use of the reporter and more. The reporter has a peak under the cover of a story to write sheets and sheets of “news.” The source gets out an inaccurate version of a story under the cover of “news.” Only the public unknowing of the terms loses in this rough trade. The New York Times is sorry.
CONSIDER THE CASE Judith Miller and WMD. Fellow Timeswoman Maureen Down takes Miller down for this and more. Miller may or may not have had some level of security clearance. That has been written about before more than once. Jay Rosen in Press Think points out the problems with such clearance.
Clearance is a terrible trade off: the reporter gets to know, but can’t tell the world unless the government says it’s okay, and if you slip up or don’t ask they can throw you in jail. What kind of journalist would count that an advantage?
I can think of one kind: a reporter who, working closely with sources inside government, had already agreed to submit all her copy to those officials for their approval anyway. Thinking it over, said reporter might say to rapidly rationalizing self: They’re making me pay the costs (in censorship.) I should get more of the benefits (in classified data.) Clearance at a higher level lets me see more of what they find. How can I push to publish the best stuff if I don’t know what they have?
A REPORTER LIKE MILLER is an info junkie. She needs more and more to satisfy the need to be one “on the inside of a story.” What happens is a reporter like this doesn’t look into conflicting information too much and more often looks out for her friends, the ones who gave her access in the first place.
SCOOTER LIBBY AND MILLER may prove to be the most diabolical dance of seeming sun of information with satellite moon caught in orbit where real truth has been sucked into some black hole. Information takes on different meaning depending on how its source is labelled. If there is a problem in what some consider the necessary use of “anonymous” sources, reporters damage the pursuit of truth when they too anxiously help the less than honest hide their tracks. A source can be a White House aide, but also a former Hill staffer at the same time. Tim Rutten in the LA Times picks up on this quite snarkily and puts Miller down hard:
"My recollection, I told him, was that Mr. Libby wanted to modify our prior understanding that I would attribute information from him to a 'senior administration official.' When the subject turned to Mr. Wilson, Mr. Libby requested that he be identified only as a 'former Hill staffer.' I agreed to the new ground rules because I knew that Mr. Libby had once worked on the Capitol Hill.
"Did Mr. Libby explain this request? Mr. Fitzgerald asked. No, I don't recall, I replied. But I said I assumed Mr. Libby did not want the White House to be seen as attacking Mr. Wilson."
You can bet he didn't. As the Los Angeles Times' Peter Wallsten and Tom Hamburger reported Friday, Libby was obsessed with Wilson and determined to discredit — and defame — him. Why take the chance of leaving your own fingerprints at the scene of the crime, when the Washington press corps continues to be studded with useful idiots like Miller, who would whack their own grandmothers for a byline above the fold.
The breathtaking ease with which Miller acceded to a demand from one of the executive branch's highest ranking officials that she mislead her readers about what really was occurring on an issue of literally life-and-death importance should be just that — breathtaking. Unfortunately, it's just another shabby example of dirty work as usual among a certain time-serving segment of the Washington press corps.
With that as backdrop, consider the truly breathtaking hypocrisy of this portion of Miller's testimony to the Senate this week: "Those who need anonymity are not only the poor and the powerless, those whose lives or jobs might be in jeopardy if they speak up publicly, but even the powerful. All are entitled to anonymity if they are telling the truth …."
ALL ARE ENTITLED to anonymity as determined by Judge Judy Miller as she prints her story. “All” would seem to be more than one person. But if Miller refers to Libby as a White House aide in one paragraph, then as a former Hill staffer in the next, Libby echoes Libby in seeming confirmation of what may or may not be true. When editors at the Times leave it to reporters to decide what is and is not accurate, who are we to judge the evidence presented as nothing but received facts? The halls of power so recorded are but echo chambers of disinformation.
DISINFORMATION SPREAD is not just Judy Miller’s peculiar vice and affliction at the New York Times. Small mentions in the “news” serve as well to help disinform. First you make a claim anonymously, then you cite the claim you made anonymously in public, then you let someone help you trumpet the claim you yourself made in the first place. Recall how the WMD story was sold and remember everything with Plame comes back to WMD. Charles Layton in wrote about this more than two years ago in the American Journalism Review:
On September 8, the Miller/Gordon story about the aluminum tubes appeared on page one of the New York Times. The information was attributed to unnamed administration sources. That same morning, Vice President Dick Cheney was interviewed by Tim Russert on NBC's "Meet the Press." Cheney mentioned, vaguely at first, Saddam's efforts "to acquire the equipment he needs to be able to enrich uranium to make the bombs." Russert, familiar with the Times story, prompted his guest: "Aluminum tubes."
Cheney replied: "Specifically aluminum tubes. There's a story in the New York Times this morning--this is--I don't--and I want to attribute the Times. I don't want to talk about, obviously, specific intelligence sources, but it's now public that, in fact, he has been seeking to acquire...the kind of tubes that are necessary to build a centrifuge."
When Bob Simon heard about this interview, he told me, he smelled a rat. "You leak a story to the New York Times," he says, "and the New York Times prints it, and then you go on the Sunday shows quoting the New York Times and corroborating your own information. You've got to hand it to them. That takes, as we say here in New York, chutzpah."
WHEN THE SHOW IS ON THE STAGE no one notices the strings attached to the puppets. Behind the stage a skillful puppeteer can make more than one puppet dance. Reporters like Judy Miler watch the dance on stage and report the news unaware that they themselves are on stage too with upclose access by their rough trade, unaware what strings attach to them.