Thursday, October 20, 2005
MILLER CASE: Another op-ed columnist's view --
Miller is a blip to soured public
By ERIC DEGGANS, Times Op/Ed Columnist
Published October 20, 2005
Ask some experts why the public seems uninterested in the mounting criticism
of New York Times reporter Judith Miller, and their answer is simple: People
already have a low opinion of the media's credibility.
But the New York Times' exhaustive account Sunday of Miller's role in the
leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity - outlining why she spent 85
days in jail resisting a subpoena to reveal her sources - did more than
provide the "Gray Lady's" critics with ammunition to attack the paper's
The story also revealed why Miller's case has become such a hot button issue
for journalists - who suspect the paper spent millions to support a flawed
reporter manipulated by her White House source - but hasn't galvanized many
outside the Fourth Estate, who pollsters say give reporters less credit for
ethics and credibility than they give themselves.
Some journalism experts say more disclosure from the New York Times sooner
in the case might have helped.
"I would like to have seen this kind of transparency earlier in the
process," said Jon Ziomek, an associate professor of journalism at
Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism in Illinois. "Sadly,
Miss Miller did not make her case very well, which doesn't help the
The New York Times' 5,800-word story was brutal in its honesty, revealing
that Miller says she can't remember who originally told her Plame's name,
though it wasn't the one source she did disclose: vice presidential chief of
staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Still, significant questions remain -
raising doubts that the New York Times can ever be totally honest with
readers, given the current legal environment.
In an accompanying, 3,500-word, first-person account of her grand jury
testimony, Miller admitted agreeing to identify Libby only as a "former Hill
staffer," apparently to further disguise his identity. And she said the
military granted her "clearance to see secret information" while embedded
with a unit in Iraq, raising questions about her objectivity.
The story also noted New York Times editor Bill Keller and publisher Arthur
Sulzberger Jr. largely ceded control of the legal case to Miller - a
headstrong reporter criticized for helping write stories on weapons of mass
destruction in Iraq that seemed to bolster the Bush administration's case
"My dominant reaction was, "Gosh, didn't they learn anything from this
Jayson Blair business ...?"' said Don Wycliff, public editor for the Chicago
Tribune, referring to the serial plagiarist at the heart of the last scandal
to shake the New York Times in 2003. "You've got this woman and her editors
putting their own company on the line, American journalism on the line, and
nobody asked her any questions."
Barbara Crossette, a journalist who retired in 2001 after 28 years at the
New York Times, blames much of Miller's problems on a "cult of celebrity
among journalists" she witnessed over two decades at the newspaper.
"It began to play out in the newsroom with people who had privileges and
could get away with breaking rules ... or people who could bully their way
into print with stories editors had qualms about," said Crossette, who
admitted occasional friction with Miller while heading the New York Times
United Nations bureau.
This may sound like a lot of inside baseball to the average reader - perhaps
because they already assume journalists are taking such liberties in their
"I think what strikes readers is that, for the second time in three years,
the New York Times has made a big splash about some transgression of their
own ... and if they're doing it, we're all probably doing it," said Wycliff,
who also serves as chair of the ethics and values committee for the American
Society of Newspaper Editors.
Wycliff's observations are echoed by pollsters who note that scandals such
as those involving Miller or Blair don't often bring large swings in public
In 2002 the Pew Research Center for People and the Press found 60 percent of
Americans believe news organizations were unwilling to admit their errors
and 59 percent believed news organizations were politically biased. In June,
a poll showed 60 percent still believed news outlets were politically
biased; a survey last year found 54 percent of respondents believed what
they read in their daily newspapers.
"Jayson Blair, to everyone's surprise, that case did not resonate too deeply
with the public," said Carol Dougherty, associate director at the Pew
Research Center. "I can't imagine the public is tuned into (Miller's) role
very widely." But Dougherty also documented a paradox: About 80 percent of
Americans gave favorable ratings to their daily newspaper, local TV
newscasts and cable TV news networks.
"They like the product, but they criticize the way the news media does its
work ... including some of the elements people view as partisan," Dougherty
One person who hasn't let the New York Times' reporting dim her support of
Miller is Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporter's Committee for
Freedom of the Press.
Dalglish rejected much of the criticism directed at Miller, saying pundits
should focus on the principle of protecting a source. Miller made that case
herself Wednesday before Congress, testifying before the Senate Judiciary
Committee for a federal shield law to help journalists keep sources
"If reporters cannot protect their sources on a day-to-day basis, people
will not have the information they need to practice democracy," Dalglish
said. "This case ... shows what happens to the independence of a newsroom
when you allow a prosecutor to go in and hunt for sources."
Despite the involvement of high-profile journalists such as Miller and
columnist Robert Novak (who actually disclosed Plame's name in print), it
seems the public may not learn the full story unless prosecutor Patrick
Fitzgerald somehow reports it or indicts someone. Others say the most
damaging aspect of Miller's part in the case may be to set back the shield
law effort she had hoped to bolster.
"It wouldn't hurt us to be a little humble and to say we picked a broken
vessel to be the bearer of our hopes here," said Wycliff, who personally
opposes a federal shield law. "It's time (for journalists) to eat some
humble pie and be a bit more discerning about our methods, and a little less
pompous in the future."
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Eric Deggans
can be reached at 727 893-8521 or firstname.lastname@example.org See his blog at