THERE’S A MOMENT in the great old newspaper movie All the President’s Men that should serve as a warning to us all. I’m quoting from memory, but it went pretty much like this. Jason Robards, portraying the legendary Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, is explaining the facts of life to Robert Redford (Bob Woodward) and Dustin Hoffman (Carl Bernstein). "We don’t print the truth," Robards tells them, glowering. "We print what people tell us."
Judith Miller wrote down what people told her — powerful people, including White House sources, US military officials, and the Iraqi exile leader Ahmad Chalabi — and got her newspaper, the New York Times, to print it. The stories those people told her were sensational. Her byline appeared over reports that Saddam Hussein had attempted to purchase aluminum tubes used in the manufacture of nuclear weapons (September 2002, co-written with Michael Gordon). That there were "secret facilities for biological, chemical and nuclear weapons in underground wells, private villas and under the Saddam Hussein Hospital in Baghdad as recently as a year ago" (December 2001). And that "two mysterious trailers found in Iraq were mobile units to produce germs for weapons" (May 2003, co-written with William Broad).
These stories were entirely accurate — and, it now appears, entirely false. Miller, her fellow reporters, and their editors had forgotten the Ben Bradlee rule. They had thought they were printing the truth when, in fact, they were only printing what people had told them. Chalabi, a favorite of neoconservatives such as Vice-President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, had long been distrusted by the State Department and the CIA. Now we know why: late last month, Iraqi and American forces raided Chalabi’s headquarters. Among other things, Chalabi was accused of supplying intelligence to Iran. Of course, it’s long been clear that Chalabi’s neocon sponsors — most definitely including Cheney — were no more reliable than Chalabi himself.
And so it has come to pass that the Times is embroiled in yet another controversy over its standards and ethics. After more than a year of maintaining its silence while critics such as Jack Shafer, writing in Slate, and Michael Massing, in the New York Review of Books, demanded a full accounting, last week the Times’ floodgates burst open. On May 26, the paper published a 1100-word mea culpa, tucked well inside the "A" section and headlined from the editors, that named no names, but confessed to "a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been." The editors also patted themselves on the back for "an enormous amount of journalism that we are proud of."
This past Sunday the paper’s public editor, Daniel Okrent, weighed in with nearly 1900 more words. Okrent, who did name names, wrote that the editors’ note got it "mostly right." He proceeded to blame the lapses on such journalistic sins as "the hunger for scoops," "coddling sources," and "hit-and-run journalism," which he defined as the failure to follow up on startling exclusives, even — or especially — when those exclusives don’t pan out. For good measure, Okrent took a swipe at the much-maligned Howell Raines, who was executive editor for most of this period, writing that "a dysfunctional system enabled some reporters operating out of Washington and Baghdad to work outside the lines of customary bureau management."
Those observations are magnified in a 7200-word-plus profile of Miller for the current New York magazine by the New Republic’s Franklin Foer, a Washington-based journalist who’s also written for the Times and the Washington Post. In Foer’s telling, Miller is a deeply unpopular figure at the Times because of her "unpleasant hyper-aggressiveness." Her achievements — including a 2002 Pulitzer, won by a team of Times reporters for its coverage of global terrorism — were the result not of hard digging, Foer argues, but of the assiduous care and feeding of her highly placed sources. ("Nina Totenberg, a colleague from NPR, recalls a party in the mid-seventies at which Jordan’s King Hussein caught a glimpse of Miller across the room and howled, ‘Juuuuddddy!’ ‘Kiiiinnnggg,’ she responded.") After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the anthrax mystery that followed, Miller’s long-standing obsession with germ warfare and other weapons of mass destruction, previously seen as something of an eccentricity, helped establish her as the only person at the Times who’d been right all along. And Raines, in part because he knew Miller’s reporting could help counter the paper’s — and his — reputation for liberal bias, turned her loose.
It was, as we now know — and as we’ve known since at least a year ago, when the weapons failed to turn up — a recipe for disaster.page 1 page 2
Issue Date: June 4 - 10, 2004
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