“Like most people at the times,” New York Times executive editor Bill Keller told a Princeton gathering on November 14, “I am suffering from a serious case of Judy Miller fatigue.” Aren't we all? But before we succumb, a deeper look would be timely.
The Miller case turns out to be part of an epidemic in need of a proper diagnosis. The very day Keller was criticizing Miller's WMD coverage while congratulating the paper for airing its dirty laundry, Bob Woodward, American journalism's knight in tarnished armor, was giving a deposition to the grand jury called by Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald. A couple of days later Woodward published a statement in The Washington Post -- one that read more like a legal-deposition-cum-bureaucratic memo than a journalistic report -- revealing that “current or former Bush administration officials” had, in a “casual and offhand” manner, told him about Joseph Wilson's wife and her cia job in June 2003, before Wilson's famous Times op-ed and before Robert Novak piped the leak into his column.
Two exalted, prizewinning journalists willingly embedded themselves in the disinformation exercises of the most mendacious administration in living memory. Their bosses have been busy controlling the damage but cannot relinquish their favorite hobby: whistling in the dark. Miller's and Woodward's woeful stories are different, to be sure, but the common elements outweigh the differences. They tell an epic story of ingratiation bonded with ideology, of journalistic surrender to power.
Woodward apologized for misleading his editor, Leonard Downie Jr., by keeping his inside knowledge out of the paper's hands for more than two years—even though, as an assistant managing editor, Woodward was supposed to be helping the paper pursue stories like Fitzgerald's investigation.
But Woodward's besetting sin is graver than he acknowledges. Woodward seems free of Judy Miller's neoconservative zeal, but his method imprisons him. Like all deals with the devil, Woodward's deal with his sources entails a quid pro quo. The powerful spill their beans and he keeps their secrets under wraps until his books come out. Presumably his sources would be loath to spill if they knew their beans would appear in the next day's paper.
Woodward maintains that the public gets the beneﬁt of these conﬁdences through his books, and he's right -- sometimes. But he dodges the larger point that in the interim, before the book comes out, readers of The Washington Post are deprived of information that, had they learned it contemporaneously, they might have acted on, while his behind-the-scenes tick-tock often negates what the paper is carrying day by day. In this case, the salient information is that at least three members of Bush's inner circle (I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Karl Rove, and Novak and Woodward's source or sources) were involved in a smear operation --
either a bright idea they arrived at independently, each in the privacy of his own skull, or a collective tactic and thus, in the letter of the law, a conspiracy.
If the purpose of news in a democratic society is, in Walter Lippmann's words, “to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them into relation with each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act,” then Woodward's sequestration of news into book fodder is ﬂagrantly antidemocratic. It's secret keeping for the sake of secret keeping (and book sales). However revelatory his books may prove at times -- as in Bush at War's certiﬁcation that Bush had Saddam Hussein in his gun sights right after September 11, 2001 -- his method serves Woodward's desire to trade in conﬁdences more than the public's right to know.
It gets worse. The Valerie Plame revelation didn't even make it into Plan of Attack, though Woodward did mention Wilson there, and his source's revelation clinches the point that powerful folks in Bush's circle were systematically spilling the Plame leak to smear her husband -- a fact certainly relevant to the origins of the Iraq war. If you never publish relevant information so assiduously collected, what is the purpose of your reportorial privilege?
And it gets worse. To students at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism last December, Woodward declared: “Only one or two people ever lied to me in a book interview.” (“He's a lucky man,” one newsmagazine investigator said to me drolly when I read her this quote.) When you consider who Woodward has interviewed for his books -- the likes of William Casey, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld -- your jaw drops. No wonder you read Woodward's books in vain looking for moments of truth in which the writer compares claims to independently checked facts. It is not Woodward but Knight Ridder's James Kuhnhenn and Jonathan S. Landay who wrote, about a Cheney claim, the straightforward sentence: “This isn't true.”
And it gets worse. In interviews, Woodward publicly and repeatedly sneered at Fitzgerald's investigation. “There was no nothing,” he told Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air on July 7. “Laughable,” “gossip,” “chatter” -- these are other words Woodward deployed. These are not the words of a ﬂy who merely sits on the wall. This ﬂy is inside the conversation.
It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Woodward ﬁnds the inner drama of power so compelling that it melts away independent judgment. “These people are not my friends. I don't socialize with them,” he said at Columbia. But they socialize him -- into being their spokesman.
On this score, woodward leads a veritable squadron in the Washington press corps whose mystiﬁcations wash out the solid work done by skeptical reporters. Woodward's silence about his direct knowledge of the White House sliming campaign against Wilson is perhaps not as consequential as Miller's lending herself to disinformation about WMDs in Iraq, but they are joined in overweening respect for unreliable authorities, and that entails disrespect for contrary evidence. It is this journalism of assent that lubricated Bush's rush to war.
Thanks especially to Michael Massing's reporting in The New York Review of Books, it is well established that Miller's prewar reports about WMDs (some co-written with Michael R. Gordon) were badly skewed. There's neither need nor space to review most of the particulars here, but it's worth re-examining the cavalier manner in which Miller dealt with one particular dissenter, for it is typical of journalism neutered and defanged.
One of Miller's most inﬂuential pieces was the more than 3,500-word front-pager she co-wrote with Gordon on September 8, 2002, headlined “U.S. Says Hussein Intensiﬁes Quest for A-Bomb Parts.” The piece opened with the notorious high-strength aluminum tubes sought by Saddam Hussein, tubes that “American officials believe were intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium.” “Irrefutable evidence,” said Cheney soon afterward. “Only really suited for nuclear weapons programs,” said Condoleezza Rice. By fronting the Gordon-Miller piece, Howell Raines, then the Times' top editor, covered himself, showing that he was no liberal crusader but a gung-ho muckraker pursuing muck wherever it lay.
As Massing wrote, this piece met with the vehement objection of David Albright, a physicist and former weapons inspector who, as director of the Institute for Science and International Security, had worked with Miller since 1996 on Iraq-WMD questions. Before publishing, Miller had indeed tried to reach Albright, who was away at his grandmother's funeral. When he saw the piece, he was aghast. He called her and told her what he knew about aluminum tubes. They talked several times. “I spent years studying the Iraqi centrifuge program,” Albright told me. “[Gordon and Miller's] story was perpendicular to what we knew. The Iraqis tend to reverse-engineer. They were not going to acquire equipment from elsewhere which they would then have to modify. This would require hard work and they might get it wrong. The tubes weren't even components, as they said. They were a pre-form, one step moved from a component.”
Albright insists the tubes uproar was crucial in the run-up to war -- more so than the yellowcake hullabaloo. “The tubes were the heart of the matter,” he says. “The issue of uranium [from Africa] I never took seriously because Iraq could mine uranium itself. They had 400 tons of it. You only need ﬁve tons for a bomb. It had been collected by inspectors in the ‘90s and put in a warehouse.” But the aluminum tubes, if they were really parts for uranium-enrichment centrifuges, were, if not quite smoking guns, at least guns being readied to smoke.
Albright was horriﬁed when the follow-up piece came out. Fewer than 900 words, it ran on page A13 under the headline: “Threats and Responses: Baghdad's Arsenal; White House Lists Iraq Steps to Build Banned Weapons” on September 13, 2002, the day after President Bush's ready-for-war speech at the UN, Halfway down, Miller and Gordon cited unnamed officials as saying that “some experts had questioned whether Iraq might not be seeking the tubes for other purposes, speciﬁcally, to build multiple-launch rocket systems.” But Miller and Gordon went on to dismiss such experts as representing “a minority view.”
“I was very surprised that she and Michael Gordon just insulted the critics,” Albright told me. “I was furious at Judy. I didn't speak to her for more than a year.” As for Gordon, “He was very strident. He told me once that he believed the cia when they found no link between Iraq and al-Qaeda, so he was inclined to believe them on the subject of the aluminum tubes.”
“You can't trust the Times,” Albright concludes.
WMD --I got it totally wrong,” Miller told the Times' Don Van Natta Jr., Adam Liptak, and Clifford J. Levy, who wrote the paper's long overdue self-study on October 16, 2005. ‘'The analysts, the experts and the journalists who covered them -- we were all wrong. If your sources are wrong, you are wrong.''
These sentences deserve the closest of parsing. “The analysts, the experts” were not all wrong -- David Albright wasn't, for one, nor were various State Department and Energy Department officials mentioned in passing by Miller and Gordon without citing any reasons for their dissent. “The journalists who covered them”? Knight Ridder's Jonathan S. Landay and Warren P. Strobel were right. The Washington Post's Joby Warrick was right, though his important piece, under the headline “Evidence on Iraq Challenged; Experts Question If Tubes Were Meant for Weapons Program,” ran on page A18 on September 19, 2002.
The key to Judy Miller's cri de coeur lies in her repeated alibi that the journalist is only as good as her sources. But sources, like WMDs, do not grow on trees. Nor, in general, do they swim up to the helpless journalist and attach themselves like barnacles. A journalist chooses them. Miller -- and her superiors -- fail to consider that her sources opened up to her precisely because they found her sufficiently reliable, meaning credulous. “My job,” she said in a 2004 radio debate with Massing, “was not to collect information and analyze it independently as an intelligence agency; my job was to tell readers of The New York Times, as best as I could ﬁgure out, what people inside the governments who had very high security clearances, who were not supposed to talk to me, were saying to one another about what they thought Iraq had and did not have in the area of weapons of mass destruction.” No wonder Massing told me: “From her stories, it seems clear to me that she had an ideological agenda and went out to ﬁnd information that would support it.”
When officials systematically warp facts because they base themselves on faith, the I-don't-do-independent-analysis conception turns access journalism, always dangerous, into something yet more toxic—abscess journalism.
At a time when journalism is widely distrusted, circulations are hemorrhaging, revenues bleeding, investors slavering, and bloggers eager to pounce on journalistic malfeasance, what lessons have the nation's news proprietors learned?
Not many. Our top newspapers seem to think that, in an age when they are under 24-7 blogger scrutiny, they can still purify themselves with ease, if embarrassed ease, by banishing Miller and slapping Woodward on the wrist. But top managers at the Times and the Post are clueless about how much respect they've lost. How did they miss ﬁrst the WMD hoax, then the White House's Wilson-baiting and cia-baiting cover-up? How come Knight Ridder didn't miss those stories? What does their team know about covering Washington that the huge Times bureau doesn't?
A few days after the Times and Miller reached an agreement that parachuted her off the staff, I found myself at a party where I was introduced to Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., the Times' publisher who is widely suspected of having protected Judy Miller when she was, as she quaintly likes to say, running amok. In the course of this unplanned conversation I asked Sulzberger what he had learned from the Judy Miller affair about how Bush's Washington should be covered. He refused to say. And it may well be that the publisher of the world's most important newspaper, up against the most destructive American government it has ever confronted, doesn't have a clue.
Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University. His latest book is The Intellectuals and the Flag. He writes regularly for TPMcafe.com. Research assistance provided by Simon Maxwell Apter.