Weirdly, the Times’ own full-page article on October 16 about the Miller mess didn’t address how or why her key notebook had been suddenly discovered, or whom her source for Plame’s name might have been, if not Libby. But the piece was no whitewash. It rather shockingly depicts the infamous Judy Miller that media and political types have chattered about for decades, a supremely well-connected prima donna loathed by many of her colleagues, a loose cannon who recklessly disregards conventional boundaries—between fact and propaganda, friend and subject, friend and source, friend and boss, boyfriend and subject and source. (See Franklin Foer’s “The Source of the Trouble.”) And the Times piece portrays her as anti-collegial and pursuing a personal agenda to the bitter end: She gave two interviews to Times reporters but “generally would not discuss her interactions with editors, elaborate on the written account of her grand-jury testimony or allow reporters to review her notes.”
As soon as he became the paper’s editor in 2003, according to the article, Bill Keller pulled her off the Iraq and WMD beats, yet he says that “she kept kind of drifting on her own back into the national-security realm.” That fall, when the Times’ Washington bureau chief asked Miller if she was one of the journalists to whom White House officials had leaked Plame’s identity, she said no, not really. Miller claims that she had suggested early on that the Times do a story about the affair; managing editor Jill Abramson says that’s not true. The article discloses that the Washington bureau produced a story this summer about Libby and other Cheney aides’ role in the case—awkward—that got spiked. Abramson says she regrets “the entire thing”; Keller says he regrets his paper had to make a do-or-die First Amendment stand on someone with such “public baggage”; but their publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., says he had no regrets at all about the paper’s dozen pro-Judy editorials.
Poor Keller sincerely tried to do the right thing by backing the right of his reporter—even this compromised reporter—to honor her confidentiality agreements with sources. But the disconnect between the iffy, impure particulars of this case and the officially righteous Times line was always a problem and has now become more so.
And Miller’s martyred St. Judy of Journalism pose is galling. After Time reporter Matt Cooper decided in June to accept Rove’s gang-waiver of confidentiality at face value, Miller (and Keller and Sulzberger) seemed to relish the opportunity to portray Cooper and Time as corporatized pussies, traitors to the First Amendment cause. “If she is not willing to testify after 41 days [in jail],” Sulzberger’s editorial page declared, trying to tough-talk the prosecutor into giving up and letting her go free, “then she is not willing to testify.” Principled Judy . . . brave Judy . . . steadfast Judy . . . until two weeks later, when she caved—“I owed it to myself”—and ordered her lawyer to arrange for a personalized waiver from Libby.
And in her Times story about herself last week, she twists the facts so that she appears entirely principled and noble, saying only that Libby’s “letter and telephone call came last month”—miraculously came, she says, neglecting to mention that she had solicited them. She also brags of getting the prosecutor to agree that she would have to testify about none of her sources except Libby—a bit of a con, since she now says that while she can’t remember from whom she did learn Valerie Plame Wilson’s name, she’s sure it wasn’t Libby. (Her protectiveness toward him seems oddly extreme, well past professional square-dealing: For instance, she ventured to the prosecutor, if Libby did leak classified material to her, well, maybe he thought her special super-duper battlefield security clearance still applied in D.C.)
To recap: During the last two years, as Miller’s legal jeopardy made it impossible for her paper to report an important story without fear or favor, she has variously ignored and badly misled her editors. So now they simply can’t let her keep writing for the Times, certainly not about “threats to our country,” as she defined her beat last week in the paper. She’s got to go, and one way or the other surely will.
She’s no Jayson Blair, but the debacle into which she’s dragged the Times seems worse. Blair was a greenhorn psycho, a freak accident that happened to the paper. Miller is a Pulitzer Prize winner who’s been there 28 years, a bona fide member of the Hamptons-Manhattan-D.C. media elite, an old friend and former country-house roommate of Sulzberger’s. And her regrettable behavior aside, alas, there really is an important principle at stake—which is why last week, the day before she testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of a federal shield law, the Society of Professional Journalists gave her its First Amendment Award and a standing ovation. Her removal or containment will need to be finessed.