BILL KELLER AND THE BLOGS. Bill Keller is answering questions at The New York Times's site this week, and at one point he offered a somewhat testy view of the blogosphere in responding to a couple of readers who wrote in asking about the Judith Miller affair. Keller responded:
Sigh. I can't imagine that there is anything to say about the Judy Miller episode that I have not already said, publicly and to The Times staff, over and over. At The Times, as in most of the media-watching world, we have registered the Miller saga as an important cautionary tale, and moved on. But the story has an afterlife in the impending trial of Scooter Libby, and, as our Q&A mailbag demonstrates, the subject has settled into some quarters of the blogosphere as a partisan obsession and an object of grassy-knoll conspiracy theories. The hard-core enthusiasts feed on blogs that have little to offer but harebrained speculation. (And they think Judy Miller was credulous!)...
[T]he experience last year has certainly raised our editorial vigilance and underscored the importance of the checks and balances that operate to assure fair and accurate news coverage, especially in sensitive areas such as national security, where reporters rely on sources who cannot speak for attribution. [emphasis added]
I can understand Keller's frustration both with the blogs and with the fact that the Judy Miller saga just won't die, and I know the fact that this is being published on a blog may, in his and others' eyes, diminish its worth in some intangible way. Still, I think I can offer Keller some clarification that might nonetheless have some value. In the runup to the Iraq war, the Bush administration practiced an extraordinary amount of deception, the depths of which we are only just learning now; every passing day brings yet another example of pre-war duplicity, each more startling than the last. Yes, The Times is partly responsible for digging up what we're learning now. But let's face it -- it's too late. Because of this war, over 2,300 Americans are dead and over 50,000 (the most recent count I've seen) are severely wounded. With Congress in GOP hands, the public's last line of defense against an administration as mendacious as this one is the media. Without a tough, vigilant media the public -- not to say the young men and women losing eyes, arms, legs, everything -- are helpless.
Now the administration is making agressive noises yet again, this time towards Iran -- and the grunts and chest-thumping sound startlingly similar to the ones we heard in 2002 and 2003. There's every reason to fear that the administration will fall back on the same tactic of spreading intelligence it knows to be false while suppressing intelligence that undercuts its case for war. Given the media's dreadful complicity with the administration's propagandizing last time around, there's simply no reason to assume that it will do a better job this time around. And this time -- because of all the talk about nukes, plus the tattered state of America's relations with the rest of the world -- the stakes are arguably greater. In other words, this is damn serious business.
So if people are obsessing about the Miller affair, maybe it's because they're thinking about the future, not the past. They're hoping -- praying, pleading -- that this time reporters will be far less willing to spread White House lies in exchange for the passing pleasure of getting a scoop, and that the press this time will be far more aggressive and skeptical when it counts, i.e., before the war, not after. It's good to hear Keller say that the Miller fiasco has raised the paper's "editorial vigilance," but come on -- the burden going forward is on The Times and other media to prove that this is so. In fact, one might see the leadup to a possible war with Iran as a chance for The Times and the other big news organizations to redeem themselves for their performance on Iraq. It's an opportunity, really. Let's hope the media will seize it.
Are blogs frustratingly awash in misinformation at times? Are they imperfect in many other ways? Yes, and yes. But I think Keller's irritability towards bloggers is misplaced. Blogs hammered The Times for Miller, yes, but not because the majority of left-liberal bloggers want to embarrass The Times for the fun of it or otherwise tear down big news organizations. Rather, they want The Times and the other big news orgs to be better than they've been. And they need to be better when it counts -- in other words, Bill, right now.