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Feeling Bad for Judy: It's Possible

Jesse Kornbluth feels sorry for Judy Miller. But only a little.

- November 2, 2005

jmjail.jpg At a dinner about a week before Harriet Miers pulled the plug on her Supreme Court nomination, a woman who knew a thing or two about public humiliation had a question.

"Why," Judy Miller is said to have asked, "is everyone being so mean to Harriet Miers?"

Miller does not exactly deny making this remark. "You're probably going to hear a lot of things that I supposedly said that I don't remember saying," she told me, via email. "Like this. Don't think I ever voiced an opinion on her, or asked the question you raise about Harriet Miers."

But here's the thing: Even if Miller can't quite recall what she did or didn't say just a week ago, that remark rings true. For many readers, it will sound consistent with the mind-meld she forged with the neo-cons in the Bush Administration. And it illustrates yet again what many have long believed: She's an operative first, a journalist second. Her views make you ask: How did this person ever get on such a prestigious stage?

Many have been asking that ever since Miller, fresh out of jail, announced that she didn't know how "Valerie Flame" came to be written in her handwriting in a notebook otherwise devoted to her conversations with Scooter Libby. And she has continued to insist that Libby was not her source—that she went to jail for almost three months to protect someone whose name, inconveniently, she can't remember. Patrick Fitzgerald and most news sources—including her own employer—say that she's a liar.

And they say it in pretty much those terms. Bluntly. Judy Miller, liar.

Judy Miller's defense is another stunner—but again, stunning only for those who are still capable of being surprised by her. Like a rookie reporter rather than a prize-winning vet, she says that her work is only as good as her sources. It's a brazen position, and demeaning to everyone in journalism (including herself), for it reduces reporting to stenography.

But then, stenography may have been Miller's great talent. Christopher Dickey of Newsweek, one of the most astute writers ever to spend time in war zones, recently recalled a vintage Miller encounter:

Judith Miller takes good notes, but she doesn’t always know where they come from. That was one of the first lessons I learned about her when we were both based in Cairo 20 years ago, she for The New York Times and I for The Washington Post. As often happens in the field, we were competitors who spent a lot of time working with and against each other, in a friendly sort of way. And so it was that in August 1985 we wound up on the same trip to visit the front lines of a half-forgotten war in the Western Sahara...

For some reason none of us had a tape recorder, so on the flight back to Casablanca we compared our notes from the one interview we’d had with a Moroccan general a few hours before. We wanted to be sure the phrases we’d scribbled down were accurate. But there was a problem. Judy had many more quotes in her notebook than I and another reporter had in ours. And Judy’s were much better. Then I realized why. I’d done a lot more homework on that particular story than she did, and I was asking much more detailed questions. She’d written them down, and now she thought they came from the general, but many of the quotes actually were from … me.

We all laughed, and I doubt that Judy ever made that mistake again, but it taught me something about her that I’ve seen confirmed several times in the years since. Judy’s great talent as a reporter is in gaining access. Full stop. She doesn’t always know what she has when she’s got it, and she isn’t always good at analyzing what she’s heard when she hears it. Indeed, that may be one reason so many very high level sources—kings, princes, dictators, presidents, politicians—have enjoyed confiding, through her, so many supposed scoops and secrets published in The New York Times.

Exactly. Miller was an ear, not a mind. Powerful men like a reporter who takes dictation—when I was reporting, I was always amazed at how important people don't like to be challenged, or even, for that matter, interrupted—and powerful men like it even better when they see themselves quoted, without quibble or contradiction, in The New York Times. For its part, the paper likes the prestige that comes from privileged relationships. Standing at the intersection of powerful sources and an institution that likes to be on a first-name basis with power, Judy Miller forged a great career—as a maitre d'.

Now her career is in ruins, and pretty much everyone who writes about Miller—the notable exception: Andrea Peyser, the New York Post's home-grown version of Ann Coulter—has piled the abuse on. The only questions remaining about Miller are: 1) Will she get to respond to her critics in the pages of The New York Times before the door smacks her ass on her way out? and 2) How much will Rupert Murdoch pay her to come to the New York Post—or Fox?

This sort of demonization strikes me as unfair—and so typical of a black-and-white culture turning yesterday's hero into today's villain that I find myself feeling the stirrings of....oh, Lord....compassion for Judy Miller.

It's not because I share her politics. I'm on the other side—with those who argue that if Miller had come clean a year ago, a few million more voters might have pulled the lever for John Kerry and spared us this disastrous Bush second term. Her intransigence and her journalistic "mistakes" gave the most corrupt administration since Warren Harding intellectual cover for a war that has ousted a tyrant but produced not a single other positive result. There is blood on Miller's hands, lots of it; if you go to Hell for turning journalism into propaganda, she'll burn forever.

But she won't burn alone. There are others, many others, whose hands were on the tiller that has led Judy Miller to this moment of ignominy, and aren't they relieved today of this odd human truth: "Success has a hundred fathers; failure is an orphan." These enablers will beat the rap. Miller—pushy, brassy, snooty—is perfect for the fall. But isolating the most visible offender and forgetting everyone else who's involved shouldn't be confused with justice—or even good journalism.

The harsh fact is, liberal bloggers had Judy Miller's number two years ago. They spelled out, chapter and verse, how she was Chalabi's bitch and the neo-con's cheerleader. The potentates at The New York Times were not alone in pissing on bloggers from a great height—the official line in big-time journalism was that bloggers were guys in pajamas who elevated badly fact-checked footnotes into high crimes—but you would have thought that someone at the paper of record would have sent the occasional link to management. Apparently, no one did, which is how we now witness the paper's awkward admissions of ignorance.

[I]solating the most visible offender and forgetting everyone else who's involved shouldn't be confused with justice—or even good journalism.

In the news business, ignorance about a matter as significant as Miller's uniformly wrongheaded reporting on weapons of mass destruction is not a defense. On the contrary, it's a marker of at least passive complicity. Didn't know—or didn't want to know? The Bush White House was, in the first term anyway, pretty much a leak-proof affair. At press gaggles and the very occasional presidential press conference, not so much as a crumb was dropped. Access—that magic word—produced not much more. But the administration had so tilted the playing field—and powerful media companies had so accepted this tilt—that access was the most you could hope for. So a reporter with Miller's access was a significant asset.

And now Miller stands alone, as we beat her with baseball bats. And, worse, watch those who rode alongside her to a dubious glory take up bats of their own: Judy, we hardly knew ye.

It always happens this way. I remember, in 1988, when I started reporting on Michael Milken, the "junk bond king." Milken had recently been fingered as 'Mr. Big' by Ivan Boesky, an arbitrageur who found no crime beneath him. Milken was made for the role: He was a mystery man from Drexel Burnham's office in Beverly Hills, he wore a rug that looked like you could fly to Baghdad on it, and he gave no interviews. Michael Thomas, a columnist who had strong views about "new money" on Wall Street, and Ben Stein, who once wondered if Drexel was connected to the Medellin cartel, started hammering away at Milken in The New York Observer and Barron's. They were good at it—by the time Milken was actually charged with a crime, he had long been convicted. (The actual economic damage of his six felonies: $146,000.) Twenty points to anyone who can name a single other executive at Drexel Burnham.

A ritualized mea culpa with Oprah and Barbara Walters would earn Judy Miller a second chance—by now, everyone knows how that script works. Everyone except Miller. Her sources may have been wrong. She never is. Like Bill O'Reilly and George Bush and Dick Cheney—gee, the list does go on—Judy Miller will probably continue to do what hasn't worked so far: dig in her heels and defend herself.

It would be much more interesting if Miller broke with tradition and laid out, chapter and verse, how men at the Times and the White House used her, even as she used them. But that psychologically rich, novelistic tale would cost her something. And that's just not possible for a woman incapable of acknowledging a single flaw.

So let's beat Judy Miller with baseball bats and feed her martyr complex. Then, in the great American tradition, let's move on, having learned nothing. That way, when the next scandal hits, we can be surprised all over again.

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Jesse Kornbluth is a New York-based writer and the founder and editor of HeadButler.com.



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