Judith Miller: Clues in “Hard News”

On August 18th, Arianna Huffington quoted “a source familiar with both Judy and the inner workings of the Times“: “Every big decision that comes out of the Times comes directly from the top. Nobody does anything there without Arthur Sulzberger’s approval. It’s the larger untold story in all of this — that he now runs the newsroom.”

Arianna’s post was called “Howell Raines Redux” and it caught my eye yesterday as I was scouring the various and sundry Judy-related writings. And it made me think about the culture of the New York Times during the Jayson Blair scandal, and what had changed since then. Because certain things rang a bell.

Specifically, I recognized the not-so-vestigial remains of the “star system” that flourished under Howell Raines, in which the star is permitted to flout the usual constraints of the newsroom and – if you’ll pardon the phrase – run amok. In “Hard News,” Seth Mnookin describes how Miller’s WMD reports migrated directly to the front page under Raines’ protective watch* just like Jayson Blair‘s sniper stories and Rick Bragg‘s quirky tales of oyster shuckin’ Southern comfort. In the culture change following Raines’ ouster and Bill Keller‘s ascent, that was supposed to have changed, but clearly Judith Miller slipped through the cracks.

I’m afraid I can’t cite where I read this exactly, but I recall reading in Ken Auletta’s 1993 profile of Sulzberger that once he’d ascended to the publisher position he made an effort to distance himself from his close friendships on the NYT staff, including Miller. I can’t remember where I read this (sorry) but I remember reading tha Miller distinctly fought against this, and managed to keep the ties close. Which goes a long way toward explaining Sulzberger’s vehemence in defending her, and perhaps his willingness to trust that she would come through for the paper.

But he should have read Mnookin’s book, because there is a telling clue on page 241: “Miller did not respond to emails or phone calls asking for comment for this book.” Miller had an opportunity to go on the record in support of the Times, either to take responsibility or at least step up for her badly-damaged alma mater, and she chose not to. Not many people refused to speak to Mnookin; maybe I’m out of line, but in hindsight that seems to be a telling sign of her unwillingness to participate in an agenda for the paper’s common good. And it was echoed in her reluctance to participate in the Times’ own investigation.

Arianna comments that her beef with Miller is not exclusive to either WMDs or Plamegate: “[T]he Plame scandal is not a separate issue from Miller’s WMD reporting. It came about not only when the White House was under attack but when Miller herself was increasingly being attacked by critics for her deeply flawed dispatches.” Similarly, she quotes her source on Sulzberger’s own stubborn tenacity on the matter: “In his eyes, if you attack Judy Miller, you are attacking him.”

When you put all of that together, it’s all too clear how this could have happened — and all too sad that the lessons of two years ago were overlooked when it really mattered.

ADDITIONAL FISHBOWL COVERAGE:

  • Judith Miller: Answers, barely
  • Judith Miller: Thoughts from the Armchair Critics
  • Switched at Birth? Judith Miller and Dawn Eden
  • Judith Miller: Postscript to the Postscript

    *Pg. xviii, Paperback edition; also pg. 242: “Notably, Raines had treated Miller – like Patrick Tyler and Rick Bragg – like a star. At one point…he personally instructed her to go out and “win a Pulitzer”… Raines implicitly and explicitly instructed his staff to get her stories prominently into the paper.”