‘Scoops’ and Truth at the Times

‘Scoops’ and Truth at the Times

What happens when Pentagon objectives and journalists’ needs coincide.


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.

Probably the most instructive exercise in assessing Miller’s reporting is to compare her with the Post‘s Barton Gellman. You would think the two were in different countries, if not on different planets. After Miller’s “baseball cap” piece appeared, Gellman wrote an article that politely dismissed her scoop: “Without further details of the find, experts said, its significance cannot be assessed.” Here are typical Miller headlines from May:

May 21: “U.S. Analysts Link Iraq Labs to Germ Arms”

May 12: “Radioactive Material Found at a Test Site Near Baghdad”

May 11: “Trailer Is a Mobile Lab Capable of Turning Out Bioweapons, a Team Says”

May 9: “G.I.’s Search, Not Alone, In the Cellar of Secrets”

May 8: “U.S. Aides Say Iraqi Truck Could Be a Germ-War Lab”

Now Gellman:

May 18: “Odyssey of Frustration; In Search for Weapons, Army Team Finds Vacuum Cleaners”

May 11: “Frustrated, U.S. Arms Team to Leave Iraq; Task Force Unable to Find Any Weapons”

May 10: “Seven Nuclear Sites Looted; Iraqi Scientific Files, Some Containers Missing”

May 4: “Iraqi Nuclear Site Is Found Looted; U.S. Team Unable to Determine Whether Deadly Materials Are Missing”

To be sure, Gellman’s record isn’t without blemishes, but he seems to have realized early on that tying his fortunes to the military’s not-always-reliable sources wasn’t wise. The thrust of Gellman’s reporting in recent months, and his central theme, has been that no one has confirmed that Iraq actually manufactured or retained biological or chemical weapons after the last ones accounted for by UN inspectors in 1998. Miller, by contrast, either downplays this point or doesn’t highlight it sufficiently.

Miller’s reporting on WMD follows a pattern established with her articles on the anthrax attacks of October 2001 [see Michael Massing, “Where Germs Rule,” December 17, 2001]. The Bush Administration quickly labeled the attacks “terrorism,” without being more explicit, but Miller weighed in with a co-bylined front-pager, labeled “news analysis,” that implied Al Qaeda might be responsible. She wrote that according to one scientist, the discovery of expertly processed anthrax “casts serious doubt” on the theory that the attacks were the work of a lone amateur. “‘I do think in one form or another, a state was involved,’ one former American scientist said…. Nor is it clear whether Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden’s network, was involved in any way. American intelligence officials say Mr. bin Laden has tried to acquire nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.” [Emphasis added.]

After the Post reported that it seemed to be the work of a “lone amateur” after all, Miller simply dropped the matter. On the same day that the Post was excising the foreign connection, Miller was back with more Osama in a co-bylined story headlined “Al Qaeda Sites Point to Tests of Chemicals,” with the subhead “U.S. Suspects Bin Laden of Producing Mass Poison; U.S. Intelligence Pointed Out Two Afghan Locations Where Chemical Warfare May Be in the Making.” The article itself contained numerous disclaimers about the suspected connection: “Collecting intelligence about facilities of this sort is an inexact science at best; intelligence officials and policy makers have learned from past mistakes to be wary when using such information.”

In September 2002, a year after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, Miller had yet another Osama scoop provided by the authorities. Headlined “Lab Suggests Qaeda Planned to Build Arms, Officials Say,” the article begins: “Pentagon officials disclosed new details today about equipment found in a laboratory near Kandahar, Afghanistan, that they contend Al Qaeda intended to use to make biological and chemical weapons.”

Is this a real story? The headline and lead are powerful. But here’s the second paragraph: “The officials said the equipment–a centrifuge for separating liquids and an oven in which slurried agents could be dried–supported the assessment that Al Qaeda might have acquired what it needed to make ‘a very limited production of biological and chemical agents,’ one official said.”

Each time Miller produces an article that could induce panic, she almost always mentions, some paragraphs down, that Al Qaeda’s capability to deploy or develop these types of weapons has been judged by the Bush Administration to be crude at best. But the effect remains the same. Miller gets a story with a whopper of a headline, the story gets picked up and it connects with the American zeitgeist in support of extreme measures by the Administration domestically (Patriot Act) and internationally (invade Iraq), with few reading down to where Miller deflates the balloon and thereby preserves her credibility, in the same way that politicians leak and spin while preserving their deniability.

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.

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