'Scoops' and Truth at the Times
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.)
The April 21 story was one of a series of pieces on WMD in Iraq filed by Miller that relied heavily on unnamed sources and Pentagon officials. The question of how close Miller may have come to serving as a vehicle for Administration views was raised by Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz in a May 26 story. He quoted an internal e-mail by Miller in which she said that the main source for her articles on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction was Ahmad Chalabi, an exile leader who is close to top Pentagon officials. In the e-mail, to Times Baghdad bureau chief John Burns, Miller said of Chalabi: "He has provided most of the front page exclusives on WMD to our paper." As Kurtz noted, "According to the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh, Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress was a key source of information about weapons for the Pentagon's own intelligence unit--information sometimes disputed by the CIA. Chalabi may have been feeding the Times, and other news organizations, the same disputed information."
"Chalabi has NEVER been an unnamed source of mine," Miller told The Nation in an e-mail. "He has ALWAYS been named. Every time. This is one of several gross errors in Kurtz's story." Miller did not identify those errors. It's notable that Miller's comments about Chalabi don't jibe with what she told Burns in her e-mail to him. Chalabi is named or quoted in sixteen Miller articles over the past year, mostly on political topics, but in only one of those is he mentioned, even remotely, in connection with WMDs--and then only to note that he and US military investigators might be exchanging intelligence information. If he were the New York Times's key supplier of exclusives on that subject and, as Miller claims, was not used as an unattributed source, his name should appear in those articles. Rosenthal did not comment on the Chalabi memo beyond saying Kurtz should not have published it.