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Trouble at the New York Times

October 24, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: As the New York Times printing presses were churning out the news of the world over the weekend, they were also publishing the increasingly bitter story taking place inside the Times.

The continuing controversy over the actions of reporter Judith Miller gained steam Friday when Times editor Bill Keller sent out an internal message to his staff.

In the note, which was leaked to various Internet sites, Keller accused Miller of misleading the paper about her role in the Valerie Plame Wilson leak case and took himself to task for not keeping a closer eye on the situation – writing, “I missed what should have been significant alarm bells.”

On Saturday the Times published Keller’s concerns in the paper under the headline “Times Editor Expresses Regrets Over Handling of Leak Case.”

Miller responded to Keller in an e-mail. Among other things she addressed the issue of Valerie Plame Wilson and her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had cast serious doubts about the administration’s weapons of mass destruction claims in the run-up to the war.

Miller said she was unaware there was a deliberate concerted disinformation campaign to discredit Wilson, when she discussed him and his wife with governmental officials in the fall of 2003.

Also, on Saturday under the headline “Woman of Mass Destruction” Times columnist Maureen Dowd publicly and sharply criticized her colleague saying Miller had engaged in deception and that some of her story doesn’t seem credible.

Yesterday the times public editor Byron Calam who addresses ethic issues at the paper wrote that Times editors had moved too cautiously to correct problems about prewar coverage and were too deferential in their treatment of Miller as she took shortcuts. As for Miller, Calam wrote that her problems will make it difficult for her to return to the paper as a reporter.

And more now from Geneva Overholser, professor of journalism for the University of Missouri; she’s a former editor of the Des Moines Register, ombudsman at the Washington Post, and once served as a member of the editorial board at the New York Times. Welcome to you.

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Thank you. It’s good to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: How unusual is this public airing of what usually is kept behind the scenes in the newsroom?

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: I have never seen anything quite like it. Honestly, Jeff, I think it is unprecedented, although more and more we are seeing newsrooms in ways we have not in past years, partly because of bloggers and the transparency, that means that if an editor puts a memo out.

JEFFREY BROWN: As in this case?

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: As in this case — which at one point would have remained within the newsroom — it now reverberates all over the entire Internet world.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I suppose it is also now after the scandals that we have seen over the past few years where there is more internal dialogue looking at what happened.

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Absolutely. One of the things that the media have decided is that if they hold themselves accountable, if they assure the public that they are attempting to be responsive to concerns, if they try to be transparent in the way they work, that that may help address some of the concerns the public have about them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Part of this story is about one particular reporter, Judith Miller. What makes her such a lightning rod? Is it the star system of the New York Times? Is it the kind of stories that she was working on, notably about weapons of mass destruction?

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: I think both are key. She is definitely a star reporter, and has long been. She has been famed for being somewhat difficult in her own phrase, she sort of jokingly said “They call me Ms. Run Amok.”

She has been working on weapons of mass destruction for a long time, and did stories in 2002 and 2003 that were important in the run-up to the war and were very controversial. She herself has said that she got it wrong. She says my sources got it wrong and so I did.

But those stories caused Bill Keller, the executive editor of the Times, to write what he now calls a rather belated note to readers saying we apologize, essentially, for having gotten the weapons of mass destruction so wrong. And she was the primary author of most of those stories.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now the other important aspect of this is precisely Bill Keller and the editorial oversight of what was going on at the Times. What — help people outside of our business understand– what are the important editorial issues at stake here that have been raised, for example, by Bill Keller in his memo?

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: You know, I think that’s the most surprising angle for me, Jeff.

It appears that she, for example in Bill Keller’s words, Judith Miller drifted back toward reporting on national security issues even after he said that he had told her she must do that no more.

She was I think kind of working between the Washington Bureau and the New York Times so what I really do believe is fair to call the normal amount of editorial guidance and constraint that almost any newspaper would have seems largely to have been missing in her case.

I think she had gotten to a place on staff where she was given a wide amount of leeway but frankly the concerns that had been raised about her reporting make one question why that leeway would have been continuing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now why does it matter what happens at the New York Times? Who is watching, what sort of ripple effects does a story like this have?

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Great ripple effects. This is the most closely observed newspaper in America by other media and surely a very important influence on decisions that other media make, including television, I think you would agree, and certainly newspapers across the country which look at the budget that is the expectations of the New York Times for what its next front page is going to look like, papers everywhere make those choices. And I think that for that paper to go through such visibly difficult and unsettling times is unsettling for an industry which already is going through a great deal of change.

JEFFREY BROWN: Issues such as anonymous sources were very much on the table before this happened.

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Exactly and are very much a part of this immediate store he because as you know, Judith Miller was protecting an anonymous source who turn out to be Lewis Libby. And the idea that she was giving him as much power over her report and protecting him even at one point seems to have guaranteed him she would be willing to call him a former Hill staffer so as not to ensnare the White House in what looked like a smear campaign, but it appears that it was a smear campaign. And she would have been willing to mislead readers, I think.

JEFFREY BROWN: We said that the indictments could come this week, that could involve high officials in the Bush administration, but on the media front briefly what’s next, what are you looking for next?

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Well, I think once the indictments come it will be hard to keep the focus on the media. But I believe that we will continue to struggle to look for ethics that serve the public’s need at a very different time. And that can mean we have to figure out whether we need a federal shield law, and I think we do. We have to figure out how to use anonymous sources, which are key but which we have clearly been abusing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Okay, Geneva Overholser, thank you very much.

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Thanks so much for having me, Jeff.