Even on the weekend, our obsession with the Plame/CIA leak scandal–and the Judy Miller sideshow–doesn’t end. Here’s a piece I posted on my blog at www.davidcorn.com.
The wheels of The New York Times turn slowly, but perhaps they are moving in the right direction. On Friday, executive editor Bill Keller sent out a memo in which he offered a “first cut” at the “lessons we have learned” from the Judy Miller mess. The memo was no defense of Miller and the Times.
To his credit, Keller starts with the original sin in the Miller scandal: her problematic prewar reporting on Iraq’s WMD, which relied too heavily on administration and Iraqi exile sources and which, consequently (and perhaps purposefully) hyped a nonexistent threat. Keller, who was not the top editor when Miller ran amok on this story, wrote,
I wish we had dealt with the controversy over our coverage of WMD as soon as I became executive editor. At the time, we thought we had compelling reasons for kicking the issue down the road. The paper had just been through a major trauma, the Jayson Blair episode, and needed to regain its equilibrium. It felt somehow unsavory to begin a tenure by attacking our predecessors. I was trying to get my arms around a huge new job, appoint my team, get the paper fully back to normal, and I feared the WMD issue could become a crippling distraction.
So it was a year before we got around to really dealing with the controversy. At that point, we published a long editors’ note acknowledging the prewar journalistic lapses, and–to my mind, at least as important–we intensified aggressive reporting aimed at exposing the way bad or manipulated intelligence had fed the drive to war. (I’m thinking of our excellent investigation of those infamous aluminum tubes, the report on how the Iraqi National Congress recruited exiles to promote Saddam’s WMD threat, our close look at the military’s war-planning intelligence, and the dissection, one year later, of Colin Powell’s U.N. case for the war, among other examples. The fact is sometimes overlooked that a lot of the best reporting on how this intel fiasco came about appeared in the NYT.)
By waiting a year to own up to our mistakes, we allowed the anger inside and outside the paper to fester. Worse, we fear, we fostered an impression that The Times put a higher premium on protecting its reporters than on coming clean with its readers. If we had lanced the WMD boil earlier, we might have damped any suspicion that THIS time, the paper was putting the defense of a reporter above the duty to its readers.
This is a serious admission. Might Keller feel his leadership at the TImes is in jeopardy? Or is he simply being a mensch? I do wonder why there has been no disciplining of Miller for her botched coverage of the WMD issue. Keller is acknowledging these “journalistic lapses” were significant and that they had a negative impact on the newspaper. So why were the people responsible for these mistakes not held accountable? After all, they caused more harm to the paper than did Jayson Blair.