Catch-22 at the New York Times
Now that Judge Hogan has lifted Judy Miller's contempt citation, there is no reason for the Times to hold back on its promised full accounting of the Miller story.
Rarely has there been so much riding on a single article. Especially internally. The frustration I've been reporting on since July has now spilled into the MSM with "nearly a dozen Times staffers" venting to Howard Kurtz. The Times newsroom is a powder keg ready to blow.
But the Times finds itself facing a vexing Catch-22. In order to quell the rising newsroom rebellion -- not to mention fulfill its obligation to the Times' readers -- the Miller reporting team of Landman, Van Natta, Liptak, and Scott need to produce an article that tells the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about what Bill Keller called Miller's "entanglement with the White House leak investigation." But how can they do that without going against the paper's unwavering editorial line in support of Miller?
As I've said before, coming clean on Miller will mean focusing not just on "the drama" of Miller's time behind bars but on her discredited reporting on WMD in Iraq -- the issue that brought her to the Plame dance in the first place. It will require Landman and company to interview the editors and reporters who observed first-hand Miller's actions during the period in question (and who are speaking privately about her journalistically dubious methods) -- including her tirade against Joe Wilson. It will entail the paper applying the same journalistic standards to the Judy Miller story it would apply to any other subject.
But how do you do that when your bosses are still sticking by the Judy-as-hero routine?
So which way will it go? Will the Times save its journalistic soul by coming clean or will it serve up a mushy bowl of Judy-shielding pablum to avoid contradicting its editorial stance so far?
If the language Keller has been using lately is any indication of the paper's mindset, it doesn't bode well. His references to "vultures still circling," "preposterous speculation congeal[ing] into conventional wisdom," and "myths kicked up by the rumor mill" don't sound much like a man ready to come clean.
If the big Times story does not break with this siege mentality, the paper will have made the kind of mistake it will be next to impossible to recover from. Expect an exodus from West 43rd Street. I hear that some of the Times' brightest stars are already being courted by competitors looking to take advantage of the mounting anger at the paper's handling of the Miller affair. Maybe that's what Keller meant by "vultures circling."
And this time, the anguish won't be brought to an end by the kind of ritual bloodletting that followed the Jayson Blair fiasco. Sulzberger sacrificing Keller won't do the trick. No one doubts for a moment that on all things Miller Keller has been acting as a loyal lieutenant to the publisher.
As a source familiar with the inner working of the Times told me in August: "Every big decision that comes out of the Times comes directly from the top. Nobody does anything there without Arthur Sulzberger's approval. It's the larger untold story in all of this -- that he now runs the newsroom."
Or as longtime Times observer Michael Wolff told me: "The distinction between the 3rd floor and the 14th floor used to be real. The editor was always in charge. That's no longer the case. And it's hard to avoid the conclusion that while Pinch has been running the paper, it just lurches from crisis to crisis. At some point you have to question the quality of his leadership."
And that questioning has already begun, leading to the unspeakable being whispered among big media players. As one of them boldly asserted to me: "Mark my words, this will end with Sulzberger's resignation."
It's a sign of how bad things have gotten that such a far-fetched scenario has moved from the realm of the preposterous (after all, nine of the Times board's fourteen directors were chosen by the Sulzberger family) to the realm of the conceivable.
That's a hell of a lot to have riding on a single story.