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The Source of the Trouble

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Raines had a clear reason to defend Miller. By early 2002, she had become one of the paper’s most valuable assets. The Times was being soundly challenged by the Washington Post in its coverage of the war on terror. He’d been especially irked by the attention that his rival garnered with Bob Woodward’s meaty reporting from inside the CIA and FBI throughout the fall and winter, tracing preparations for war in Afghanistan and early investigations into 9/11. For a man who made it his mission to raise the paper’s “competitive metabolism” and expressed his thoughts in sports metaphors, the defeat was especially painful. Judith Miller was the strongest card he had to play. No other reporter had managed to win the trust of the administration hawks and could so consistently deliver Post-beating scoops.

There were also ideological reasons for him to turn to Miller. During the summer of 2002, Raines had taken a beating for stories by Patrick Tyler that raised questions about support for the war among the Republican foreign-policy establishment. (To be sure, Tyler’s story had arguably attributed antiwar sentiments to Henry Kissinger that he didn’t hold.) The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol pummeled Raines for surrendering to his biases, placing the Times in an “axis of appeasement” that had “now mobilized in a desperate effort to deflect the president from implementing his policy.”

The Raines response was very un-Rainesian. Instead of “flooding the zone” and pushing ahead with a crusade, he told one close friend that he wanted to prove that he could cover a story straight. An ex-Times editor told me, “He wanted to throw off his liberal credentials and demonstrate that he was fair-minded about the Bush administration. This meant that he bent over backwards to back them often.” In October 2002, James Risen ran an authoritative story casting serious doubt on a purported Prague meeting between the 9/11 terrorist Mohammad Atta and Iraqi intelligence—a meeting that supporters of the war trumpeted as evidence of a Bin Laden–Hussein nexus. Because the story had run in the Monday paper, Raines didn’t have a chance to vet it over the weekend. After the fact, he complained to an editor that it had gone too far. A former editor says, “In the months before the war, Raines consistently objected to articles that questioned the administration’s claims about Iraq’s links to Al Qaeda and September 11 while never raising a doubt about Miller’s more dubiously sourced pieces about the presence of weapons of mass destruction.”

Another management problem was that Miller, like many in her profession, didn’t take well to editing. “Judy has never been shy about crawling over the heads of editors,” says one retired Times colleague. And Raines had crafted Judy’s assignment so that it became extremely easy for her to circumvent the desks. According to one of her editors, she worked stories for investigative one day, foreign the next, and the Washington bureau the day after. It was never clear who controlled or edited her. When one desk stymied her, she’d simply hustle over to another and pitch her story there. It was an editorial vacuum worsened by the absence of a top editor on the investigative unit, her nominal home. Between Doug Frantz’s departure for the Los Angeles Times in March 2003 and Matthew Purdy’s arrival in January 2004, Miller had almost no high-level supervision from editors with investigative experience.

Many editors I spoke to consider Miller to be such a high-maintenance, uncollegial writer that they’d rather not deal with her at all. One Times veteran says, “She considers us to be her minions.” The process of editing her sounds like an exercise in misery, requiring a constant subjection to her fits of anger; it draws editors into her interoffice disputes with other reporters. Another adds, “There’s only one editor who has had the skill, energy, and willingness to harness her energy—Stephen Engelberg.” But after Engelberg edited a series on Al Qaeda for which Miller and her unit won a Pulitzer in 2001, he left the paper, leaving Miller without the strong hand capable of directing and containing her zealousness. It was a perilous dynamic: By being so difficult, she became so much more vulnerable to journalistic sins than her more affable colleagues.

So why did it take so long to run an editor’s note? In the newsroom, there are several theories. The first, and least persuasive, is the Sulzberger factor. “There was always the sense, true or not, that she had a benefactor at the top,” says Seth Faison. When Miller joined the Times in the late seventies, she arrived in the Washington bureau at about the same time as Arthur Sulzberger Jr.—a recent college graduate getting hands-on experience in the shop floor of the family business. The D.C. office had only about half a dozen reporters under the age of 35, including Sulzberger, Miller, Steve Rattner, and Phil Taubman. They clung to one another. After work, they would retire to Duke Zeibert’s for a drink. The crowd became even more sociable. When Miller dated Rattner, they shared a weekend house on the Eastern Shore of Maryland with Sulzberger and his wife, Gail. There’s no evidence that Sulzberger ever directly intervened to help Miller, and Miller has undergone enough career reversals to make this hard to believe. Still, that friendship has become well known within the newsroom. Fairly or unfairly, there’s a sense that Miller has protection at the absolute top—and that fear reportedly deters some editors from challenging her.

The timing of the editor’s note probably had far more to do with the ethos Bill Keller hoped to set for his regime. When he took the job, he promised to avoid ugly recriminations against Raines’s favorites. He felt it was time to move on. His paper would be a far friendlier, more humane place. In a September meeting, according to two sources at the paper, he quietly removed Miller from her coverage of Iraqi WMD. (She denies she was pulled from the beat.) But Keller didn’t want to make a public issue out of this. At a lunch with the paper’s Washington bureau this spring, reporter Douglas Jehl questioned him on the paper’s WMD coverage, asking if the Times owed its readers a thorough reconsideration of its use of Chalabi. Keller replied that he didn’t want to single out any specific reporters for abuse—the same line the paper took in the editor’s note. He believed it was enough to correct the coverage itself. And it might have been were it not for the combustion of Miller’s critics outside and inside the newsroom, all spurred on by the deteriorating situation in Iraq, which forced even the U.S. government to disown the notorious source at the center of the story.

While the Times has conducted its inquiry, Miller’s WMD coverage has also occasioned a series of less high-minded questions: namely, does Judy Miller live in an apartment divided? During the past year, three intriguing documents have been pushed into the public view that may shed light on this matter. Since 1993, Miller has been married to Jason Epstein, the legendary Random House editor who reinvented paperback publishing in the early fifties. Last May, in the New York Review of Books, Epstein published an excoriation of the Bush administration’s march to war. The war, he blared, was “a preemptive assault whose urgency has not been adequately explained and for which no satisfactory explanation, beyond the zealotry of its sponsors, may exist.” This can be rather effortlessly interpreted as a shot across his wife’s bow: Hadn’t Miller’s oeuvre painted a sufficiently frightening picture of Saddam’s arsenal?

Document No. 2 also appeared in the New York Review. Before I cite the article, however, it is necessary to say a brief word about the venue. Epstein was a founding father of the journal. His first wife, Barbara Epstein, remains an editor there. Therefore, the Review’s pages were odd ones to showcase a vivisection of Judy Miller’s reporting. But last February, the Review published the critic Michael Massing’s devastating analysis of Miller’s work. Document No. 3 helps set the Massing article in context. The same month that Barbara Epstein ran Massing’s piece, Jason Epstein paid tribute to her in a New York Times Magazine food column. Writing a poignant reminiscence of their 1953 honeymoon, he told readers: “The marriage proved to be bountiful. When after many years, it ended, the love that we celebrated on that December day [their wedding day] remained intact.”

Predictably, the editor’s note inaugurated a new round of grumbling inside the paper. Reporters complained that the note had mentioned no names, implicitly equating Miller’s sins with those of less-culpable reporters like Michael Gordon and Chris Hedges. Others remarked that it had been buried on A10, not a space normally reserved for serious statements about the paper. One Timesman speculated that these complaints would wend their way into the press: “The rumbling on this reminds me of all the Howell-Blair stuff. Once people started complaining publicly . . . the proverbial cat was out of the bag.” And of course, by making this observation to me, he had fulfilled his own prophecy. A few days later, Daniel Okrent, the public editor, was expected to unveil the conclusions of his own investigation, one he had vowed not to conduct because it concerned events that preceded his—and the new, kinder, more transparent Times’—arrival.

But making the process more transparent is easier than reforming the profession itself, which inevitably relies on people. People like Miller, with her outsize journalistic temperament of ambition, obsession, and competitive fervor, relying on people like Ahmad Chalabi, with his smooth, affable exterior retailing false information for his own motives, for the benefit of people reading a newspaper, trying to get at the truth of what’s what.


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