The editorial page of the New York Times recently led with a justifiably outraged condemnation of George W. Bush’s choice for United Nations ambassador–John Bolton, a famously outspoken anti-UN and antimultilateral ideologue. How ironic, then, that the Times‘s news editors had previously dispatched to the UN a reporter tight with the same Boltonite unilateralist clique–a reporter who has written about alleged wrongdoing at the UN in such an exaggerated way as to cast the organization and its leadership as almost beyond redemption.
When she began her work at the UN, Judith Miller was still under a cloud for her starring role in the Iraq Invasion Follies, in which she hyped Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction and Al Qaeda ties–claims that greatly buttressed the White House case for war but that ultimately proved unfounded [see Baker, “‘Scoops’ and Truth at the Times,” June 23, 2003]. The Times, which has since published a series of mea culpas, placed Miller in a quasi quarantine, according to insiders at the paper. Yet she re-emerged, amazingly, still writing about Iraq–now from an oblique angle: the UN’s alleged mismanagement of the Iraqi Oil for Food program.
In January 2004 the Iraqi daily Al-Mada listed 270 people suspected of profiting while enabling Saddam’s government to evade oil sales restrictions. By April an independent UN inquiry was under way, headed by former Federal Reserve chair Paul Volcker. In May Miller was put on the story. Several Times sources say they believe Miller requested the assignment. Miller did not respond to interview requests, and Times executive editor Bill Keller declined to comment.
To be sure, the UN is an institution needing reform, and the Oil for Food program, troubled. Volcker found that the Oil for Food chief, Benon Sevan, acted in a way that “presented a grave and continuing conflict of interest” and was “ethically improper”–and can’t explain cash he received. The report did not, however, suggest that Sevan’s actions indicated widespread or higher-level graft. But an examination of Miller’s work shows that she used contrivances of tone and framing and selective citation of biased sources to create a headline-generating super-scandal–one that Volcker’s newest (March 29) report confirms to be thus far without serious foundation.
Since October 22 she has produced no fewer than twenty-one articles on the matter, nine of them centered on criticism by Capitol Hill figures with no love for the UN. She reported the scandal, GOP senators and House members investigated and she reported the investigations themselves as evidence that corruption was far more widespread than the facts indicated. And through many of her articles echoed the mantra of Republican senator and key source Norm Coleman’s Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Kofi Annan Must Go.”
In January, when Volcker released internal UN audits, Miller’s framing was subtly but significantly different from that of other journalists. The LA Times lead characterized the audits as showing “lax oversight,” while Miller attempted to tie the shortcomings directly to Annan, reporting that the audits “criticize an office, led by a former top aide to…Annan.” Only in Miller’s thirteenth paragraph do we read that “Mr. Volcker said that the internal audits ‘don’t prove anything,’ but do show how the United Nations was urged to tighten up its supervision of the program. ‘There’s no flaming red flags in the stuff,’ he said.”