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Millerís Times (continued)




IN AN E-MAIL to Foer, Times executive editor Bill Keller ó who reportedly wrote the editorsí note himself ó defended Miller, saying, "Judy is a smart, relentless, incredibly well-sourced, and fearless reporter. Itís a little galling to watch her pursued by some of these armchair media ethicists who have never ventured into a war zone or earned the right to carry Judyís laptop."

Point taken. Indeed, the only danger I face as I write this is that the barista might mistakenly slip skim milk rather than whole into my latte. Miller has put herself in some incredibly dangerous situations to get the story ó never more so than in the spring of 2003, when she accompanied American weapons inspectors on what turned out to be a fruitless search for Saddamís arsenal.

On the other hand, nothing Iíve ever written has made it easier for the White House to justify an unnecessary war. And no, itís not that no one would have believed that Saddam had WMD if not for Miller and her colleagues. After all, Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons inspector, believed Iraq had WMD. By some accounts, even Saddam believed it, having fallen victim to the lies of his own scientists, who were too terrified to tell him otherwise. But the Times coverage provided a steady drumbeat of scary news that kept potential anti-war forces off balance. The stories always contained caveats, noting that Chalabi and other exiles were viewed with suspicion in some circles, that the tales they were telling could not be independently verified. Still, this was compelling stuff, especially since many of these articles carried the imprimatur of White House sources.

"The White House had a perfect deal with Miller," a "former CIA analyst" told James C. Moore, writing in Salon last week. "Chalabi is providing the Bush people with the information they need to support their political objectives with Iraq, and he is supplying the same material to Judy Miller. Chalabi tips her on something and then she goes to the White House, which has already heard the same thing from Chalabi, and she gets it corroborated by some insider she always describes as a Ďsenior administration official.í She also got the Pentagon to confirm things for her, which made sense, since they were working so closely with Chalabi. Too bad Judy didnít spend a little more time talking to those of us in the intelligence community who had information that contradicted almost everything Chalabi said."

Inexplicably, Miller told Moore, "I was proved fucking right." About what, exactly, is unclear.

WHAT HAPPENED at the Times in the run-up to the war in Iraq wasnít a scandal so much as a monumental lapse. Judith Miller isnít Walter Duranty, winning a Pulitzer while covering up the horrors of Stalinís Soviet Union in the 1930s. Nor are her and her colleaguesí shortcomings comparable to those of the Timesí owners, the Sulzberger family, during World War II. As recounted in Susan Tifft and Alex Jonesís Ochs-Sulzberger bio, The Trust, the family deliberately played down reports about the Holocaust lest they be accused of pandering to Jewish interests. Needless to say, this has nothing in common with the Jayson Blair saga, other than being yet another outburst of exceedingly bad news for the Times. Instead, this is more like the case a few years ago of Wen Ho Lee, the Los Alamos scientist who was accused of spying and who was imprisoned by the federal government before being cleared ó but not before the Times had committed acres of newsprint to documenting the so-called evidence against Lee while raising few if any questions.

The White House was going to war no matter what. To argue, as Amy Goodman and David Goodman do in their book The Exception to the Rulers: Exposing Oily Politicians, War Profiteers, and the Media That Love Them that "Millerís lies provided the pretext for war" and "cost lives," is grossly unfair. Still, some journalists managed to maintain their skepticism and distance to a greater degree than Miller.

This past February, the New York Review of Books ó which is re-establishing its political relevance on the strength of its anti-war essays and criticism, as Scott Sherman observes in the current issue of the Nation ó published a long piece titled "Now They Tell Us" by veteran journalist Michael Massing, whose long résumé includes a stint as executive editor of the Columbia Journalism Review.

Massing held the media in general and Miller specifically to account for their enthusiastic, unquestioning coverage of Chalabi, his fellow exiles, and their administration supporters, while giving short shrift to their debunkers in the intelligence community. And though no mainstream news organization comes out looking particularly good in Massingís assessment, he credited the Washington Postís Walter Pincus and Knight Ridderís Washington-bureau chief, John Walcott, among others, with demonstrating greater skepticism than anyone at the Times about Iraqís WMD capabilities and alleged ties to Al Qaeda. "Compared to other major papers, the Times placed more credence in defectors, expressed less confidence in inspectors, and paid less attention to dissenters," Massing wrote.

Massingís piece was followed in the intervening months by two long, angry series of exchanges, published in the New York Review, between him, Times reporters Miller and Michael Gordon, Washington Post associate editor Robert Kaiser, and others. By my reading, Massing deflected every blow.

The New York Review was a curious venue for a tough piece about Judith Miller. Its long-time co-editor, Barbara Epstein, is the ex-wife of Millerís husband, Jason Epstein, a legendary figure in New York publishing circles. Franklin Foer reported that Jason and Barbara Epstein remain on friendly terms, and that Jason Epstein wrote fondly of his ex-wife in a New York Times Magazine food item the very month that Massingís essay was published. Perhaps this suggests that Jason Epstein and his current wife do not see eye-to-eye on the war in Iraq. More likely, itís a coincidental reminder of how incestuous the New York media and literary worlds can be.

IF JUDITH MILLER, the New York Times, and the mainstream media in general had done a better job of covering the run-up to the war in Iraq ó if they had given greater voice to the skeptics, if they had made it clear that the case for WMD was not a "slam-dunk," to borrow one of CIA director George Tenetís favorite expressions ó perhaps a few more moderates in Congress would have voted against authorizing President Bush to go war. Perhaps public-opinion polls would have been more mixed. Perhaps a few fence-straddling commentators would have gotten off the fence.

But the case for Iraqís weapons capabilities and terrorist ties couldnít have been absolutely disproven any more than it could have been proven. The media didnít fail because they were unsuccessful in stopping the war. Rather, they failed because, in all too many instances, they parroted the White Houseís rationale for war rather than subjecting it to rigorous, skeptical analysis. That is to say, they failed because they forgot what journalism is for.

They printed what people told them. Ben Bradlee could have told them that wasnít good enough.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com. Read his daily Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.

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Issue Date: June 4 - 10, 2004
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