It’s about trust

Judy Miller makes one lousy poster girl. So why does she keep ending up on posters? And what does this say about the poster makers? Don’t they care about her credibility and their trust?

: The Society of Professional Journalists chose to give Miller its First Amendment Award and also chose not to criticize her ethical lapses. Jenny DeMonte writes a great report on this for Pressthink; more on that in a minute.

: Pajamas Media chose to have Miller keynote their grand opening. I stated my puzzlement at this here, provoking a personal attack from one of their number and a phone call from PJ founder Roger L. Simon, who was amazed at my amazement. We couldn’t hear each other well on my cell phone (‘can you understand me now?’) but I told Roger that I said what I thought on my blog and I went to look for what he’d said on his blog or at Pajamas Media, though he hasn’t written about it. He praised her writing and reporting and said she’d be worth hearing on shield laws. I just repeated, “Judy Miller? Judy Miller?”, as I did with another of PJ’s number the night before. His reply, one word with a shrug: “Californians.”

: The California First Amendment Coalition invited her to give its First Amendment Award to Mark “Deep Throat” Felt.

: And, of course, The Times made her the poster girl for the First Amendment, a federal shield law, The Times itself, and even journalism. Nevermind.

I don’t understand how these players can separate her credibility and ethical behavior (as defined by such thing as SPJ’s code of ethics) from their own credibility and trust. Like it or not, we in journalism are judged by our worst work and what we do about it. When we circle the wagons to defend fellow journalists instead of defending the truth, we lose trust. I tell editorial organizations trying to improve quality that it’s more important to raise the bar at the low end than the high end because of this. I’m not even saying whether Miller should be fired or treated as a pariah — I said she should do the profession a favor and quit — but I certainly don’t think she should be held up as a paragon of anything. She messed up her reporting and didn’t fess up and still blames her unnamed sources and broke rules and, from what I can tell, made herself the center of a cause more for self-promotion or bullheadedness than for the cause itself. And we should trust her? And others should trust us for trusting her? Why?

I’m not writing this from a political perspective. I’ll piss off both sides here: I supported the war in Iraq, not on the basis of Miller’s and Bush’s WMDs but instead on our obligation to bring democracy and freedom to the people of Iraq, a goal I’m afraid we’re going to fail because of the incompetence of the party in power and the lack of humanitarian will of the opposition party. My issues with Miller are not political. They are journalistic. She is no longer credible. So why is she selected as a standard bearer for the First Amendment, shield laws, journalism, or any newspaper?

: At Pressthink, outgoing SPJ head Irwin Gratz explained his group’s award to Miller for Jay Rosen:

Judy Miller received a near standing ovation at her appearance before our attendees Tuesday. And our voting delegates, in a spirited debate, removed paragraphs critical of Miller from the resolution that spoke to our more general criticism of anonymous sourcing.

And that’s something to brag about? Jenny provides the details of what the SPJ voted for and against and what the organization stands for in journalistic ethics and how that compares with Miller’s behavior.
Jenny concludes:

This is another part of the slow rot that’s eating at the work of newsgathering and reporting and writing and producing. Journalism has, as its core, the trust between reporters and editors, and reporters and the public. As that erodes, the whole enterprise starts to crumble. People turn away from news and reporting. Other forms can rise and steal the hearts and minds of citizens.

I am quite disappointed that a professional organization, representing work I love, would have celebrated someone who appears to have stomped all over the highest values of the practice. If Stevenson and Keller are right about the “contract between the paper and its reporters,” where’s the contract between journalists and the public? That’s what the rules and codes are supposed to be. They tell us what journalists do to retain our trust without us having to witness every act of newsgathering.

: See also the Record of New Jersey’s editorial backing away from Miller: “We’ve been had.”

And see The Guardian’s report on Miller’s negotiations with The Times, which incredibly are said to include a non-disparagement clause. Oh, the disparagement’s not over yet.

: Unrelated to Miller but related to Pajamas Media: See PJ Media Unfiltered, an automated aggregation of blog posts from the PJers. Because: “When Pajamas Media goes live — under its new name — on November 16th, the front-page posts will be selected and possibly edited by its global team of editors. The purpose of this site is to show a complete selection of the PJ Media opinions from which the portal content will be derived.”

(Just for the record and to be clear: I have nothing against the PJ folks; some are friends, some I read. I have criticized their choice of keynoters for all the reasons here. And for the sake of full disclosure: I also did not hear what I thought was a sensible business model when they started and I told both Roger Simon and Mark Danziger that long ago. I chose not to participate.)