Editorial: Watching the Scooter ‘n’ Judy Show By BECKY O'MALLEY

Tuesday October 18, 2005

Topic A among the chattering classes on Sunday was the curious case of Judith (we all call her Judy now) Miller. People we talked to (five or six regular New York Times news consumers, intelligent, well-educated, on top of things) had all read the two pieces in the Times, one by other reporters and the other by Judy herself, and they uniformly reported themselves to be more confused than ever. It’s less and less clear (1) what she thought she was doing, (2) why she went to jail, and (3) what “The Times” wearing all its various departmental hats (news, editorial, publisher) thought it was doing. 

Here are a few of the hardest passages to parse from the reporters’ piece, with the questions raised by those with whom we talked about them: 

“As Ms. Miller, 57, remained resolute and moved closer to going to jail for her silence, the leadership of The Times stood squarely behind her. ‘She’d given her pledge of confidentiality,’ said Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher. ‘She was prepared to honor that. We were going to support her.’ But Mr. Sulzberger and the paper’s executive editor, Bill Keller, knew few details about Ms. Miller’s conversations with her confidential source other than his name. They did not review Ms. Miller’s notes.” 

Why, from the beginning, didn’t the editors at the Times, including Keller, the executive editor, know all about the big national stories a key reporter was working on? Supposedly what differentiates a newspaper from a blog is that newspaper reporters get the benefit of interactive criticism and advice from experienced editors who are outside the story. Editors are not there just to catch the misspelled names that the spell-checker skipped. This passage sounds like Miller was routinely encouraged to go out on any limb she chose in reporting a story, with editors prepared to catch her only when she started to fall.  


“Interviews show that the paper’s leaders, in taking what they considered to be a principled stand, ultimately left the major decisions in the case up to Ms. Miller, an intrepid reporter whom editors found hard to control. ‘This car had her hand on the wheel because she was the one at risk,’ Mr. Sulzberger said.” 

“Interviews show…?” With whom? About what? This kind of quasi-passive sentence construction always sounds like the writer has something to hide. Did “interviews” turn up any other “leaders” who advised her? Did any of the Times’ numerous editors ever suggest to her that protecting whistle-blowers who help you get to the truth is not the same thing as shielding spin-doctors who are trying to shape your story?  

Is Judy special, somehow different from other Times reporters? The ex-Timesmen quoted in the article seemed to think so: 

“‘Judy is a very intelligent, very pushy reporter,’ said Stephen Engelberg, who was Ms. Miller’s editor at The Times for six years and is now a managing editor at The Oregonian in Portland. ‘Like a lot of investigative reporters, Judy benefits from having an editor who’s very interested and involved with what she’s doing.’ ” 

Do other, less pushy reporters at the Times also operate unsupervised? In the 30-odd years I’ve known investigative reporters, a newish breed with a cowboy attitude that first surfaced in the early seventies, I’ve never met one who didn’t need to interact with an editor.  

Another ex-Times editor said that Judy had told him “I can do whatever I want.” How many other reporters can say the same? Perhaps the Times should reveal which of its investigative stories are written by unsupervised reporters, so readers can assign a credibility index to them.  

Miller appears to be managing her own legal case with no guidance from Times management and little consensus among her Times-paid lawyers. Is she doing a good job of it? Not really. For example: “... she said she felt that if Mr. Libby had wanted her to testify, he would have contacted her directly.” 

Are we really supposed to believe that she spent three months in jail because she was reluctant to have her lawyer ask Scooter Libby’s lawyer if he really, really, really did mean that he didn’t mind if she revealed his name? Sorry—this isn’t a story about a high school girl who’s trying to decide whether to invite her heartthrob to the prom. That’s what lawyers are for, to be intermediaries so their clients can avoid the potential embarrassment of making requests that are rebuffed.  

If anything sensible is starting to emerge from this unbelievable saga, it’s how perilous it is for the news media to rely on nameless sources for major stories. The overuse of this practice started with the Pentagon papers, and was reinforced by Watergate, but it leaves reporters and editors vulnerable to being used as conduits for phony information handed out by duplicitous sources for their own benefit. Judy was conned once by Achmed Chalabi, who planted the infamous nuclear tube story for which the Times later apologized. The paper seems to have learned nothing from the experience, since they turned her loose right away to be similarly spun by Libby, Rove, Cheney et al. The Wen Ho Lee story was a similar debacle, in which the Times’ formerly respectable Jeff Gerth and another reporter allowed themselves to be duped by administration operatives into doing a phony espionage story with their editors apparently out to lunch.  

Here at the Daily Planet we don’t get many big-time stories like these. But you will seldom (I’d really prefer never) see quotes or stories in this paper attributed to “an anonymous source,” “ officials” or “leaders.” Once in a very great while a vulnerable person will tell us something so important that we’ll decide we have to pass it along while concealing the speaker’s identity, but in such cases you can be darn sure that the editors know the whole story, including who the source is. We think that should be the rule for all news media.