Dowd v. Miller

Maureen Dowd fires at Judy Miller — and at her paper — in today’s Times, under the snarly and snarky headline Woman of Mass Destruction. If this is a catfight, it’s one between Siberian tigers:

She never knew when to quit. That was her talent and her flaw. Sorely in need of a tight editorial leash, she was kept on no leash at all, and that has hurt this paper and its trust with readers. She more than earned her sobriquet “Miss Run Amok.”

Dowd ends with this kicker-on-the-way-out-the-door:

Judy told The Times that she plans to write a book and intends to return to the newsroom, hoping to cover “the same thing I’ve always covered – threats to our country.” If that were to happen, the institution most in danger would be the newspaper in your hands.

This is also the first time since Miller’s release from prison — and her most unsatisfying chronicle of the tale that put her there — that we have heard from the editorial and op-ed pages of The Times, which defended Miller and the principle they wrapped her in so vigorously.

One can’t help think that this is a message from those pages and those who run them. But you would need Oracle to analyze all the agendas at work here.

Dowd, of course, is liberal queen of the anti-Bush and anti-his-war camp and so she does not waste this nya-nya opportunity: ” Judy’s stories about W.M.D. fit too perfectly with the White House’s case for war.”

Dowd is also trying to defend her institutions — The Times and The Times’ editorial pages — from the cooties Miller has given them. The newsroom cannot stand Miller and how she printed her own paper, so she criticizes the management of her:

When Bill Keller became executive editor in the summer of 2003, he barred Judy from covering Iraq and W.M.D. issues. But he acknowledged in The Times’s Sunday story about Judy’s role in the Plame leak case that she had kept “drifting” back. Why did nobody stop this drift?

Dowd is defending journalism against the latest attack on its credibility from within.

Judy admitted in the story that she “got it totally wrong” about W.M.D. “If your sources are wrong,” she said, “you are wrong.” But investigative reporting is not stenography.

Then she recounts the ways in which Miller has been an unreliable narrator, which a journalist should never be.

Dowd is defending the principle of journalists protecting confidential sources:

Judy refused to answer a lot of questions put to her by Times reporters, or show the notes that she shared with the grand jury. I admire Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and Bill Keller for aggressively backing reporters in the cross hairs of a prosecutor. But before turning Judy’s case into a First Amendment battle, they should have nailed her to a chair and extracted the entire story of her escapade.

And, finally, Dowd is defending Miller in the way only one Timesman can defend another: while protesting too much. She says she enjoys “operatic” (read: obnoxious) behavior.

: So what should happen now?

I’ll repeat: The honorable thing Judy Miller should do for journalism and The Times was not going to jail; it is resigning.

I would not be surprised to see the newsroom rise up to ask her to do just that.

And we still must hear more from The Times. But I don’t just want to hear the facts and this unfacts that unravel in Miller’s tale.

We should hear the lessons learned. We should hear the editors and publisher of The Times tell us what lessons they have learned and it would not hurt for them to ask us, their readers, what we think this should teach them. We also also hear from the reporters who have, like Dowd, dissed Miller and what she has done but behind cloaks of confidentiality. Spare us the irony. The last thing anyone needs in this sad tale is more secrets. Why not invite readers and reporters to say what they think in public, in print, and then let the bosses join in.

One Dowd column does not a catharsis make.

(Sorry that the link above is behind the pay wall. On that, considering my own conflict of interest, should I say no comment? No, I’ll just apologize.)

: MORE: Howard Kurtz reports the first public rifts between Miller and The Times:

New York Times executives “fully encouraged” reporter Judith Miller in her refusal to testify in the CIA leak investigation, a stance that led to her jailing, and later told Miller she could not continue at the paper unless she wrote a first-person account, her attorney said yesterday.

The comments by Robert Bennett came as Executive Editor Bill Keller accused Miller of apparently misleading the newspaper about her dealings with Vice President Cheney’s top aide, signaling the first public split between Miller and the management of a newspaper that had fully embraced her in the contentious legal battle.

: See also Bill Keller’s memo to his staff on Romenesko. I found and read this after I wrote my suggestion above. Note that Keller is sharing his lessons with his staff; I hope he shares them with his public as well. Among those lessons:

These are instances, when viewed with the clarity of hindsight, where the mistakes carry lessons beyond the peculiar circumstances of this case.

I wish we had dealt with the controversy over our coverage of WMD as soon as I became executive editor. At the time, we thought we had compelling reasons for kicking the issue down the road. The paper had just been through a major trauma, the Jayson Blair episode, and needed to regain its equilibrium. It felt somehow unsavory to begin a tenure by attacking our predecessors. I was trying to get my arms around a huge new job, appoint my team, get the paper fully back to normal, and I feared the WMD issue could become a crippling distraction.

So it was a year before we got around to really dealing with the controversy….

By waiting a year to own up to our mistakes, we allowed the anger inside and outside the paper to fester. Worse, we fear, we fostered an impression that The Times put a higher premium on protecting its reporters than on coming clean with its readers.

I wish that when I learned Judy Miller had been subpoenaed as a witness in the leak investigation, I had sat her down for a thorough debriefing, and followed up with some reporting of my own….

Dick Stevenson has expressed the larger lesson here in an e-mail that strikes me as just right: “I think there is, or should be, a contract between the paper and its reporters. The contract holds that the paper will go to the mat to back them up institutionally — but only to the degree that the reporter has lived up to his or her end of the bargain, specifically to have conducted him or herself in a way consistent with our legal, ethical and journalistic standards, to have been open and candid with the paper about sources, mistakes, conflicts and the like, and generally to deserve having the reputations of all of us put behind him or her. In that way, everybody knows going into a battle exactly what the situation is, what we’re fighting for, the degree to which the facts might counsel compromise or not, and the degree to which our collective credibility should be put on the line.”…

: Judy Miller should blog.

Consider that so much of what big-media accuse blogs of doing, she did. She went off on her own, without supervision and proper editing, and published speculation and innaccuracy. But note that if a blogger does that, she’ll get hounded into making a correction a helluva lot faster than Judy’s paper or she did. She operated in an echo chamber. She was a self-promoter. Yup, she should blog. She’ll need something to keep her busy and I suspect it’s not going to be The Times.

So, Judy, a gift for you: is available.

: LATER: Arianna Huffington on the Keller memo:

I’m assuming that his memo “slipped out” on Friday because he knows that on Sunday the paper’s public editor, Barney Calame, is going to write a devastating critique of the Times and he wanted to do some pre-emptive self-flagellation.

I’m assuming that Keller has not yet accepted that Judy Miller is only one part of the Times’ problem — that he must also confront an institutional arrogance that extends beyond one rogue reporter.

I’m assuming that Judy Miller has written her last story for the New York Times.