Who’s the exact opposite of Jayson Blair, the New York Times reporter accused of inventing sources and quotes, plagiarizing and other sins? Well, how about Judith Miller? Where Blair is young and black and inexperienced, a rookie journalist whose job was largely to interview ordinary people, Miller is middle-aged and white and a veteranTimes star whose job it is to interact with the best and the brightest in science, academia and government.
But Blair and Miller have more in common than you might think. Both are in trouble for giving readers dubious information. While Miller’s alleged improprieties are of a more subtle nature, and she comes into this rough patch with an estimable reputation built over the course of a long and distinguished career, her case reveals a great deal about the state of today’s news media. What Miller did, and the fact that her brand of journalism is encouraged and rewarded by the powers that be, is precisely the kind of topic that the Times‘s leadership ought to air during its current semipublic glasnost phase. In Blair’s case, the only serious damage has been to the paper’s image. Miller, on the other hand, risks playing with the kind of fire that starts or justifies wars, gets people killed and plays into the hands of government officials with partisan axes to grind.
Every morning, almost every other source of news looks to see what the Times does, then follows its lead. On the morning of April 21, in a front-page story from Iraq, Miller suggested that the main reason US forces had failed to find the much-ballyhooed Weapons of Mass Destruction–the ostensible primary reason for the invasion–was that they had been recently destroyed or existed only as precursors with dual, civilian uses. Her source? A man standing off in the distance wearing a baseball cap, who military sources told her was an Iraqi scientist who had told them those things. In the same piece, she floated unsupported claims alleging that Iraq had provided WMD aid to Syria and Al Qaeda. In so doing, she put the Times‘s imprimatur on a highly questionable formulation that was also essential to White House political interests.
In response to questions to Miller, her editor, Andrew Rosenthal, told The Nation via e-mail that the article “made clear that Judy Miller was aware of his identity and in fact met him, but was asked to withhold his name out of concern for his personal safety.” Yet the article does not bear that out. It says military officials “declined to identify him,” that she was only permitted to view him from a distance and that she was not allowed to interview him but merely permitted to view a letter ostensibly written by the man, in Arabic. “What’s surprising and I think disappointing is that the New York Times, not just Judith Miller, chose to take at face value the initial assessments of a US investigations team that certainly has a vested interest in finding WMD in Iraq,” says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. The New York Observer spoke with sources at the Gray Lady who indicated widespread grumbling about the piece; one source called it “wacky-assed.”
But it was more than that: Miller and the Times consented to prepublication approval of her piece by the military. “Those officials asked that details of what chemicals were uncovered be deleted,” Miller wrote. “They said they feared that such information could jeopardize the scientist’s safety by identifying the part of the weapons program where he worked.” (Why his safety would be in question with Saddam vanquished was not explained.)