'Scoops' and Truth at the Times
How did Miller get to a position in which she could write such stories and her editors give them such play? Part of the answer is journalism's star system. Out of the hundreds of thousands of journalists in America, just a handful enter the firmament of media stars, and Miller is one of them. Concentrating on the area of germ and chemical weapons, she mastered the complicated subject and racked up a score of successes, becoming part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for the Times and co-writing a formidable though somewhat flawed bestselling book on the subject. She became ubiquitous, appearing frequently on television.
Because reporters at these levels get unparalleled access to high-level sources, they are uniquely positioned to publish information that powerfully impacts government policy, public perceptions and even life on earth. By the same token, high-level sources use these journalists to selectively make public material that is helpful to their agenda. "The reporting is indispensable, because such journalists are able to win interviews and obtain documents that others cannot," says Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' project on government secrecy. "It is unreliable for the same reason--it cannot be independently confirmed. And over time, it tends to adhere to a certain narrow model of perception and a certain uniform way of thinking."
Of course, these reporters don't act alone. Their market-driven editors are complicit, ready to hype what is often little more than tendentious hearsay in order to present front-page scoops. Aside from attracting readers, such reporting--when it's on topics of interest to the Bush White House--can immunize news organizations against the persistent right-wing canard that they are liberal patsies. It's safe to conclude that few people at high levels will risk their jobs--and perhaps jail time--to leak unauthorized material. Hence, what's given to reporters like Miller can generally be assumed to be carefully orchestrated. The leakers know that her reporting will play big. Rosenthal argues that all sources have agendas, and notes that "whenever possible, the reporter should help the reader understand these [sources'] motivations. Judy has done this consistently in her coverage of the WMD issue."
A Miller appearance with CNBC's Brian Williams during the pre-invasion propaganda campaign shows how the game is played. Here's the intro:
Page one in this morning's New York Times, a report by Judith Miller that Iraq has ordered a million doses of an anti-germ warfare antidote. The assumption here is that Iraq is preparing to use such weapons....
WILLIAMS: Iraq's attempt to buy large quantities of the antidote in question was first reported by veteran New York Times correspondent and Pulitzer Prize winner Judith Miller in this morning's edition of the newspaper. She is also, by the way, author of the recent book on terrorism called Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War. And she is with us from the Times newsroom in New York tonight.
Miller then explains that "what worried people" was that although the drug in question has civilian uses, it's unlikely that Saddam would order a million doses for benign purposes. "That really got heads up in Washington," she tells Williams. The anchor asks her if the "Western assumption" is that Saddam is planning to protect his military with the antidote. "Right, exactly," she replies. Consider: The highest priority of the Bush Administration was to persuade the world that Saddam Hussein constituted a grave threat. It found indications of that threat and gave them to Miller, who rushed to break the story.
Jayson Blair used the cover of unidentified sources to make things up. Miller allows sources to hide their identities in order to advance a self-serving agenda. Using unnamed sources is a common and necessary technique in journalism. But sources should not be allowed to remain unnamed when the information they are imparting serves to directly advance their own and their employers' objectives. In other words, a reporter needs a very good justification for not naming a source--usually because a source is saying something that could get him or her in big trouble with some powerful entity. But what kind of trouble could befall some unnamed Pentagon source who is leaking material in accord with the objectives of the current Administration? The principal motive for remaining under cover in such circumstances, besides preserving deniability, is to gain greater currency for the leaked material, as something that has received the imprimatur of our internationally recognized "newspaper of record," the New York Times.
If the Times is serious about reform, it needs to stop looking just at troublesome cases like Jayson Blair and to examine its star system and its desire to break news, beat the competition and all the while stay in the good graces of top officials. Good journalism is about a lot more than taking advantage of connections and access. It requires going wherever the reporting takes you. Even if that means the story ends up not on the front page but on the spike.