The odd odyssey of Judith Miller

Judith Miller, the Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the New York Times, got out of jail last week after spending 85 days of incarceration for contempt. She refused to give special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald the name of a source to whom she had promised confidentiality.

The source was Lewis Libby, an assistant to Vice President Dick Cheney. Before Miller had gone to jail in July, Libby had released Miller from her pledge of confidentiality, but Miller had not accepted that release as voluntary. She had argued that the special prosecutor had coerced the release, and her position was that she should not condone such coercion because it might hinder other sources from giving her information in the future.

Sometime in the last few weeks, something happened that changed her mind. We’re not sure what just yet. She and the New York Times have promised a full accounting – something neither had chosen to do when the controversy was occurring. The Times stood squarely behind Miller’s decision to go to jail and to come out of jail. But the newspaper did not do any independent reporting of the situation, probably because of the corporate decision that the editors had made to support Miller.

Meanwhile, Miller has been the subject of much praise and much criticism for her actions. She has been praised for standing up for the principle of a reporter’s right to protect sources. Even though that principle has not been recognized on a federal level either by law or by court precedent, it is a necessary tool for reporters. They must be able to protect their sources, and they should not be hounded by prosecutors or judges for doing their jobs.

But critics have questioned Miller’s actions and motives. Many believe that Miller’s stance in this case was unnecessary and even unwise. (Matthew Cooper of Time magazine was faced with almost the same circumstances as Miller in July, and he avoided going to jail by accepted the release of his source.) Miller’s stance on principle amounted to protecting someone who might have broken the law, and a number of critics say that this was not the case on which to make a good argument for a federal shield law.

The criticism of Miller has also been more personal. Before America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, Miller had written a number of stories for the Times that seemed to support the Bush administration’s arguments that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. These stories, critics say, did not show sufficient skepticism at the time, and as events would prove, they turned out to be wrong. Iraq did not have such weapons, and the major reason for the invasion did not exist.

Consequently, Miller’s choice to go to jail is seen by some as a way of recovering her reputation within the journalistic community. The fact that she chose to leave jail last week because “something changed” has been further evidence for her critics that her motives were not entirely pure.

There are certainly questions that Miller and the Times need to answer, and we hope those answers will come soon.

One of the major questions is the role of the editors of the Times in all of this. They stood squarely behind Miller – something they have done, of course – but they seemed to have little input on the decisions that Miller made to offer confidentiality to her sources and to accept incarceration.  David Ignatius raises that point in his column in the Washington Post:

The big lesson of the Miller affair, for me, is that editors are crucial in mediating the relationships between reporters and sources. Almost by definition, those relationships become incestuous — with journalists and their sources chasing the same facts and often seeking to right the same wrongs. It’s the job of editors to intervene in this process — and demand to know, on behalf of readers, whether a story is really true. In Miller’s case, she filed stories about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction based on what her sources had told her, but the crucial judgment lay in the hands of her editors.

This process of editorial intervention is even more important when it comes to making promises to sources about confidentiality. Reporters shouldn’t be able to decide unilaterally to whom they will attach their newspaper’s reputation. Editors should agree to absolute confidentiality only in the rarest cases. In my years as an editor, I often asked reporters to go back and tell an anonymous source that if we got sued based on what he had told us, we wanted the right to subpoena that source and his records, to defend ourselves. If the source refused, sometimes we would walk away; other times, based on the importance of the information to the public, we would extend the absolute protection he requested. Some version of that Miranda warning to sources seems essential to me.

He’s right. We’ll see what Miller and the Times have to say.

Jim Stovall (Posted Oct. 5, 2005)

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One of the leading critics of Miller has been Jack Shafer, the media critic for Slate.com. His column on Miller’s release, “The Biggest Loser,” makes the point that editors at the Times did not seem to be very involved in Miller’s decisions. Jay Rosen in his blog PressThink has a good analysis on this subject in “Judy Miller and Her Times.”

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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