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Little Miss Run-Amok

The Times' lackluster reporting on the Judy Miller saga, combined with Miller's prima donna status, have made for a house divided.
 
 
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Of all the astonishing events in the Judith Miller/ New York Times chapters of Plamegate, perhaps the most revelatory is the way Miller described herself and her activities within the paper's supposedly staid, controlled newsroom.

As noted in the paper's own long-awaited explanation of the affair, Miller called herself "Miss Run Amok."

"'I said, 'What does that mean?'" recalled former investigative editor Douglas Frantz, now managing editor at the Los Angeles Times . "And she said, 'I can do whatever I want.'"

And so she did, time and again, according to the Times' own coverage, "as the newspaper's leaders, in taking what they considered to be a principled stand, ultimately left the major decisions in the case up to Ms. Miller, an intrepid reporter whom editors found hard to control."

  • Editors like Frantz' predecessor Stephen Engelberg, who damned Miller with faint praise, remarking, "Like a lot of investigative reporters, Judy benefits from having an editor who's very interested and involved with what she's doing."
  • Editors like onetime foreign editor Roger Cohen, who said, "I told her there was unease, discomfort, unhappiness over some of the coverage ... There was concern that she'd been convinced in an unwarranted way, a way that was not holding up, of the possible existence of W.M.D."
  • Editors like managing editor Jill Abramson, who when asked what she regretted about the Times' handling of the Miller matter, answered, "The entire thing." (Abramson also decried the fact that the paper's news coverage of the Plamegate affair had been "constrained" and coldly refuted Miller's assertion that she had "made a strong recommendation to my editor" that an article be pursued, but "was told no." Abramson, Washington bureau chief at the time, said Miller never made any such recommendation.)
  • Even editors like Times top dog Bill Keller, who "in one of his first personnel moves," told Miller that she could no longer cover Iraq and weapons issues. Even so, Keller told his own reporters, "She kept kind of drifting on her own back into the national security realm."

So much so, apparently, that Miller -- who had been given Pentagon clearance to see secret information -- wasn't permitted to discuss some of the more sensitive items with her editors, who had no such clearance.

Miller admitted to the "Miss Run Amok" remark but told the Times she must have meant it as a joke, adding, "I have strong elbows, but I'm not a dope." That much at least seems clear. So too does the fact that her friend in high places, Times publisher Arthur "Pinch" Sulzberger -- who told his own paper "This car had her hand on the wheel because she was the one at risk" -- not only allowed but enabled and encouraged her unusual behavior.

Sulzberger also regularly urged editorial page editor Gail Collins to devote space to Miller's plight. Asked whether he had any regrets about the editorials, Sulzberger said no. "Judy deserved the support of the paper in this cause -- and the editorial page is the right place for such support, not the news pages," Sulzberger said. Miller added that the publisher's support was invaluable. "He galvanized the editors, the senior editorial staff," she said. "He metaphorically and literally put his arm around me."

Meanwhile, however, the Times' news reporting on the Miller case became ever more "constrained," to employ Abramson's term. Some Times reporters said their editors seemed reluctant to publish articles about certain aspects of the case. Richard W. Stevenson and other reporters in the Washington bureau wrote an article in July about the role of Vice President Cheney's senior aides, but it was not published. Stevenson said, "It was taken pretty clearly among us as a signal that we were cutting too close to the bone, that we were getting into an area that could complicate Judy's situation."

Then, in August, two other Times reporters (Douglas Jehl and David Johnston) sent a memo to Washington bureau chief Philip Taubman listing ideas for coverage of the case. Taubman said Times editor Keller did not want them pursued, however, adding that he felt bad for his reporters, but that he and other senior editors felt that they had no choice. "No editor wants to be in the position of keeping information out of the newspaper," Taubman told the Times, explaining why he had done so. Both Taubman and Abramson described the overall situation as "excruciatingly difficult." Todd S. Purdum, a Washington reporter for the Times, summed up the situation by saying, "Most people I talk to have been troubled and puzzled by Judy's seeming ability to operate outside of conventional reportorial channels and managerial controls."

No wonder that "Inside the newsroom, Miller was a divisive figure," so much so that "A few colleagues refused to work with her." Nonetheless, she "operated with a degree of autonomy rare at the Times."

And no wonder that Miller felt the need for an escort when, on Oct. 3, four days after leaving jail, she returned to the headquarters of the New York Times on West 43rd Street.

Claudia Payne, a Times editor and a close friend of Miller, said, "Her paramount concern was how her actions would be viewed by her colleagues."

As the Times account paints it, "Before entering the building, she called her friend Ms. Payne and asked her to come downstairs and escort her in. "She felt very frightened," Ms. Payne said. "She felt very vulnerable."

Once safely inside the newsroom, Miller made a speech claiming victories for press freedom. "Her colleagues responded with restrained applause, seemingly as mystified by the outcome of her case as the public," said the Times account.

To which Miller added, "People were confused and perplexed, and I realized then that the Times and I hadn't done a very good job of making people understand what has been accomplished."

Despite the now-voluminous coverage from the heretofore largely silent paper of record, neither Miller nor the Times have yet to do a very good job of making any of us understand what has been accomplished. But this is much is now clear:

  • Despite Miller's protestation, her 'ordeal' has not been a victory, either for journalists or for the public;
  • As its own belated news coverage noted, "Neither the Times nor its cause has emerged unbruised. Three courts, including the Supreme Court, declined to back Ms. Miller. Critics said the Times was protecting not a whistle-blower but an administration campaign intended to squelch dissent. The Times' coverage of itself was under assault: While the editorial page had crusaded on Ms. Miller's behalf, the news department had more than once been scooped on the paper's own story, even including the news of Ms. Miller's release from jail."
  • Finally, let us not forget, as Miller put it in her own words, "W.M.D. -- I got it totally wrong. The analysts, the experts and the journalists who covered them -- we were all wrong. If your sources are wrong, you are wrong."

There's a lesson in there somewhere -- for all of us, even Miss Run Amok ...

This and other articles by Rory O'Connor are available on his blog.