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Judith Miller and the New York Times

October 17, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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TERENCE SMITH: It’s been a little over two weeks since New York Times reporter Judith Miller was released from jail after agreeing to testify about a source she had previously refused to disclose.

The Times yesterday published a 5,500-word account of her involvement in the Valerie Plame Wilson case. Headlined, “The Miller Case: A Notebook, a Cause , a Jail Cell and a Deal,” the article recounted the paper’s reporting on the issue of whether White House officials leaked the name of the then-covert CIA operative, and Judith Miller’s role in the story.

Inside the paper, Miller described “My Four Hours Testifying in the Federal Grand Jury Room.” It was the first time she had publicly discussed her testimony. Among the disclosures made in yesterday’s Time’s accounts were: Times editor Bill Keller removed Miller from the coverage of Iraq and its alleged weapons of mass destruction after several of her stories turned out to be wrong. Nonetheless, she continued reporting on national security issues.

While Miller talked to Times reporters for the article, she would not answer questions about her dealings with editors or share her notes with colleagues investigating the matter. Miller reportedly described herself “Miss Run Amok” saying that meant that she could do anything she wanted at the paper.

In fact, editor Keller and publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. left most legal decisions to Miller and did not require her to reveal details about her conversations with Vice President Cheney’s aide, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, or share her notes.

Miller spent almost three months in jail and is currently on leave from the Times. From her account, readers learned: she testified that Libby had told her on two or three occasions that the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson worked for the CIA. It’s not clear from her account whether Libby identified her by name or revealed her covert status.

Ambassador Wilson had publicly disputed President Bush’s assertions in the run-up to the war in Iraq. Miller also said it was another source who told her about “Valerie Flame,” as she jotted the name of Plame in another place in the same notebook she used for her first interview with Libby. But she said she could not recall the identity of the other source.

In one of the two broadcast interviews she did recently, Miller maintained her decision to go to jail was the right one.

JUDITH MILLER: If I had wanted to evade the law, if I thought that I was better than the law, the law didn’t apply to us, I wouldn’t have sat there for 85 days to make a political point about principle, and the principle that we journalists have to safeguard the confidentiality of our sources.

JUDITH MILLER (talking to reporters): Am I happy to be free –

TERENCE SMITH: Miller went to jail because she said she was not convinced until recently that Libby had given her a personal and uncoerced waiver of her pledge of confidentiality.

Miller’s lawyer, Robert Bennett, went on the offensive yesterday on ABC’s “This Week,” asserting that Libby could have some legal jeopardy if his testimony before the grand jury is different from Miller’s.

ROBERT BENNETT: If he had said that he had not talked to Judy about these things or didn’t talk about the wife, then he’s got a problem.

TERENCE SMITH: All of this comes as special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald appears to be winding up his 22-month investigation. The grand jury’s term is set to expire on Oct. 28.

JIM LEHRER: Here now to assess the New York Times performance in this are Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press — it’s a nonprofit organization that works to protect the First Amendment rights of journalists; and Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. He’s a former New York Times reporter and co-author of a book about the history of the New York Times. For the record we invited the New York Times to send a representative tonight. They declined.

JIM LEHRER: Alex, first, what do you think of the way the Times handled their own story on Sunday?

ALEX JONES: I think that the story — there were three stories actually of great importance in the New York Times about this subject on Sunday. One was the reported story, one was Judy’s firsthand account, and another was a column by Frank Rich, the op-ed columnist for the New York Times. In his particular case he all but accused Judy of being a dupe or worse for a concerted propaganda campaign, which raises the real hangover issue as far as I’m concerned.

I think that what this exhaustive coverage of this Plame situation in Judy’s case has demonstrated is that there’s a lot more accountability that needs to be apportioned here and that the New York Times now has made its credibility the same as Judy Miller’s credibility, and Judy Miller’s credibility is something that now the New York Times absolutely has to address in a much broader way than it has in these articles.

JIM LEHRER: You mean the New York Times’ own credibility is tied to Judy Miller’s credibility and it is not in good shape?

ALEX JONES: Judy Miller’s credibility and the New York Times’ credibility are the same thing right now in my opinion, and until Judy Miller’s credibility is vetted and until the questions that have been raised and sort of — that have come tumbling out of this exploration of Judy Miller’s relationship not just with Scooter Libby but with the White House, with the administration, her role in the work-up to the Iraq war, all of these things are now part of the story, part of the story because the New York Times did the reporting it did on Sunday but also because Judy Miller has refused within the New York Times to be completely accountable because, for instance, in the case of Sunday’s articles, she declined to provide the reporters at the New York Times with an opportunity to examine those notebooks which were a critical part of her testimony.

I think that there are a lot of questions yet to be answered and that the New York Times absolutely has a responsibility to all of its other reporters and editors to clear the air here. Judy is not a problem that is going to go away now. It’s still a very big problem, a different problem. I think the Times was absolutely right to champion Judy in her fight to avoid disclosing the identity of a source that she had promised to keep secret.

But loyalty to Judy Miller and her ability to be free and independent as a reporter are important but accountability is far more important both to the New York Times and to every reporter and editor there.

JIM LEHRER: Lucy Dalglish, do you see it the same way — accountability is now the issue?

LUCY DALGLISH: Well, I don’t think that’s just the issue. I mean obviously the New York Times has some concerns, and nobody in the story that was published yesterday comes out looking all that great. There were a lot of problems.

I think the New York Times is going to address these issues. I think what we — from my perspective what we need to focus on is continuing to work toward a federal shield law and the ability of reporters to be able to protect their confidential sources because I’m a little bit concerned that the attention being brought to this case is deflecting from that.

We had more than 30 reporters across the country this year being served with federal court subpoenas to identify their confidential sources. My concern is that this case is going to harm the effort to put an end to that type of behavior. But as I said –

JIM LEHRER: Go ahead.

LUCY DALGLISH: I think the New York Times — I have faith that they’re going to address these issues. There is no question that everybody who works there is traumatized, polarized, you name it. They’re having a very, very difficult time right now trying to figure out –

JIM LEHRER: But would you agree with Alex that Judy Miller has a serious credibility problem as well as the Times?

LUCY DALGLISH: Well, I think, at the Times — yeah, that’s probably true.

JIM LEHRER: And what about the issue, for instance, of her having Valerie “Flame’s” name in her notebook and saying she didn’t remember how it got in there and doesn’t remember who told her, are those the kinds of things that you would agree with Alex that need to be cleared up if this story is ever going to go away?

LUCY DALGLISH: You know, I’m not that surprised that she said that. I’m an old newspaper reporter and I have notebook after notebook. It’s a little hard to believe that she doesn’t remember who gave her the name but I could actually see that happening.

I also don’t think it’s all that unusual for her not to want other reporters to see those notebooks. Perhaps that could have been addressed a little bit better so that they could have seen the notes that she actually used in the conversations with Fitzgerald.

But, you know, all of us have notebooks laying around on our desks that we don’t know what went in there and when.

JIM LEHRER: Let me ask you this — on the issue — you raised the shield issue. Specifically as it applies to this case, there’s been a lot of criticism of the New York Times, Arthur Sulzberger, the publisher, and Bill Keller, the executive editor, for not pressing Judy Miller for any details. They just took her at her word and put the Times’ prestige on the line with her without knowing who the sources were or what the details were, without looking at anything. Is that what you think publishers and editors should do?

LUCY DALGLISH: You know — I think that is — the reporters and columnists at the New York Times have probably a lot more autonomy than any other reporters and editors of any other publication.

I think in most newsrooms editors will insist on knowing who the source is and the gist of what it is you’re trying to protect. I think that’s unusual, but then again I think once you reach the level of reporting for the New York Times I think you do become accustomed to more autonomy.

My guess is that in the future that type of behavior will change and that everybody at the Times will be subject to more thorough reporting to their editors.

JIM LEHRER: Alex Jones, what’s your view of that?

ALEX JONES: Jim, I worked at the New York Times for nine years. I love the institution. I think it’s absolutely essential to our democracy. And I absolutely don’t agree with that. I feel like any reporter owes it to their editor to level with them, especially when the credibility of the newspaper itself is at stake. And the idea that you would have a news organization that could not pull in a reporter and say not only who the source was but what are the circumstances of your relationship; what are the terms; what is your relationship with the administration — especially now that these questions are being raised — how can you operate a news organization?

How could the NewsHour operate if you had reporters out there who when you asked them questions about what they were doing that you were vouching for, that were representing your version of the truth, they said take a hike. That’s impossible. It was not the way it was when I was at the New York Times. And I can’t understand how any news organization can expect people to believe them if the reporters are not accountable to the editors.

JIM LEHRER: Lucy Dalglish?

LUCY DALGLISH: I agree with that. I agree with that completely. What I’m saying is — the question was, is this what goes on in other news organization? And the answer is no, it’s not. There is greater accountability. And I think there should be.

JIM LEHRER: Now you said a while ago, Lucy Dalglish, that you believe that the New York Times is not going to let this rest, that they are aware as the two of you are that there’s a lot riding for them on this. What do you expect them to do? What should they do?

LUCY DALGLISH: Well, I think a greater explanation of what’s going on and what happened — I think they have some remedial work to do with the people on their staff. There is going to probably be a review of the way they cover national security issues. I don’t know what the situation with Judy is going to be.

And I don’t think, you know — at the Reporter’s Committee we support the right of reporters to protect their confidential sources. And I would certainly not second guess anything that the Times does as far as managing its own reporters, but I think there is going to be greater scrutiny. Reporters are going to probably go through those endless workshops with in-house counsel.

I think you’re going to see more instances — and I know this from dealing with reporters across the country — there is great concern these days about how people are keeping notes, who owns the notes if the news organization itself is subpoenaed for the notes. So there is an enormous amount of work being done in newsrooms across the country right now trying to make it more clear to reporters that they have to be more upfront with their sources and say this is what the deal is. You know, let’s make sure we both agree.

These are the circumstances under which I might reveal your name. This is, you know, I have to be able to tell an editor at my newspaper what it is that we’ve been talking about. I’m seeing a lot of workshops out there in newsrooms these days talking about these issues.

JIM LEHRER: Alex Jones, finally and briefly you worked at the New York Times, you and your wife wrote a book about the New York Times and you followed everything. How serious a matter is this for the times and then generalize it. Journalism has had a lot of little problems — a lot of big problems lately. Fit this into where we are in American journalism right now and the Times.

ALEX JONES: Jim, I have to tell you, I think this is an extremely important moment for the New York Times. I think it’s a moral crossroads. I think that the New York Times, if I were the editors of the New York Times, I would appoint an internal group that I had complete confidence in to review Judy Miller’s reporting, her journalism.

And I would expect her and ask her and insist upon her cooperating and engaging that. And if she refused to engage it, if she refused to be frank, then that would essentially be a firing offense as far as I’m concerned. I think Judy Miller needs this just as much as the New York Times does. I mean, her credibility is at stake. And I think that she needs either a clean bill or she needs not to be representing the New York Times anymore.

I think that now she has taken on the sort of symbolic credibility that is going to be something that’s visited on all the editors and reporters and on the institution itself. And this may not really matter to the public at large. But within the world of journalism for the New York Times to lose its stature as the moral leader, as the standard bearer, that would be tragic.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Alex, Lucy, thank you both very much.