Thursday, October 20, 2005

MILLER CASE: New Yorker Magazine writer on NYTimes "fake transparency"

This is published in today's Washington Post as an op-ed piece:
Tina Brown is a writer/editor at The New Yorker magazine and a weekly
columnist for The Washington Post
Seeing Right Through The Times's Transparency

By Tina Brown
Thursday, October 20, 2005; C01

The age of the blogosphere has produced a new genre of mainstream
journalism: fake transparency. The New York Times has become its foremost
practitioner. The paper of record has been arraigned for arrogance so many
times in the past three years that it has forgotten how useful arrogance
can be. The Gulliver of West 43rd Street has gotten so spooked that now it
preemptively lies down, affixes bonds to its wrists and ankles, and
invites the Lilliputians of cyberspace to walk all over it.

After reading the 6,000-word takeout in Sunday's Times on the Judith
Miller/I. Lewis Libby farrago in the Valerie Plame/CIA leak case,
accompanied by Miller's own strangely cryptic narrative of her belated
grand jury testimony, I know even less than I thought I knew before.
Thinking I knew was actually more satisfying. It meant I could exude a
vague insiderly outrage without having to penetrate the clues. For Arianna
Huffington, the Miller story has been to her newly birthed blog, the
Huffington Post, a miniature version of what O.J. Simpson was to cable

All the angst goes back to Jayson Blair. The fabrication debacle two years
ago prompted the Times to sign on to the new censorious self-examining
culture, in which journalistic institutions strive to be as transparent as
religious and governmental ones (yeah, right). But not all stories are as
Manichaean as the Blair debacle. The Miller epic is so complex and
compromised it probably can't be truthfully told until after the special
prosecutor has unloosed his thunderbolts -- and maybe not even then.

Readers would rather have waited and gotten a story they could at least
understand. Newsrooms, however, can't handle that kind of old-fashioned
restraint. The blogs are baying to be fed, the competition is kicking
their butt on the story, the stock price is down. "Transparency" turns
into a combination of partial truths and morose institutional venting that
makes everyone, including the readers, feel worse about themselves and the
newspaper than they did before.

All I could extract from Sunday's Miller marathon was her own implausible
revelation that after having 85 days in jail to think about it, she has no
memory of where she got that memorable Marvel Comics name -- VALERIE FLAME
-- that was mysteriously inscribed in her recently surfaced notebook.
Miller also mentions running into I. Lewis Libby in a cowboy hat and
sunglasses at a rodeo in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and failing to recognize him.
"Judy," he said. "It's Scooter Libby!" But was it? Maybe it was Don Imus.
Or Moammar Gaddafi.

Don Van Natta's team-reported narrative included such baffling details as
Times Executive Editor Bill Keller blandly noting that, after he took her
off the Iraq story because of her lead role in co-authoring the erroneous
stories of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, Miller "kept kind of
drifting on her own back into the national security realm." Drifting? On
her own? Is the Times after Blair some sort of trackless sea, with lone
castaways afloat on rafts? To whom do reporters report? IS THERE ANYBODY

Such is the power of Dame Judith's mystique with Times Publisher Arthur
Sulzberger Jr. that his paper quotes him as saying it was Miller's "hand
on the wheel" throughout the course of the legal decision-making even
though his editors seem to regard her as a less malleable version of
Madame Chiang Kai-shek.

The Times left out the best bit of then-Investigative Editor (and now Los
Angeles Times Managing Editor) Doug Frantz's contribution to Van Natta's
account of the day when Frantz and Foreign Editor Roger Cohen objected to
a story involving allegations that there were 1,000 or more WMD sites
identified in Iraq. Miller complained to then-Managing Editor Gerald Boyd,
and, according to a quote that didn't make it in, "A couple of hours
later, Gerald pulled Roger and me into his office and chewed us out. 'Judy
Miller is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, and your job is to get her
stories into the paper!' said Gerald."

Maybe this isn't so much transparent journalism as reality TV crossed with
teenage soap opera, starring Miller as the alpha Heather. "It's official.
I'm Miss Run Amok," she announces after a tsk-tsk session with Boyd. And
Boyd's successor as managing editor, Jill Abramson, asked if she regrets
any part of the Times's handling of the matter, replies sulkily, "The
entire thing!" You can almost hear the door to her room slamming. The
script is like a rejected pilot for the WB network.

It's the curse of mainstream media institutions these days that every time
they make a stand on principle, they pick a story as murky as the times we
live in. There was CBS's Rathergate, in which the steamrolling producer
Mary Mapes played a Miller-like role. And the BBC had the Dodgy Dossier
saga, in which the excitable Andrew Gilligan overstated a report about how
Downing Street hyped the imminence of the threat from Hussein's WMDs. Both
these stories -- right in essence, wrong in the particular -- wound up
being driven over cliffs by journalists who got too embedded with their
sources. In Miller's case it was even more theater of the absurd. She had
the name wrong and the story right, but at least this time they didn't
print it.

You have to feel sorry for Sulzberger. Like every spirited young man who
inherits a newspaper, he hankers after something more exciting than
sitting in the front office fretting over the price of newsprint. He wants
to feel as real in his role as valiant publisher as his reporters -- those
driven, passionate, sometimes reckless seekers after truth -- feel in
theirs. When he threw his support behind Miller's fight to protect her
sources, he didn't think he was in a bad reality show. He thought it was
an Oscar-winning movie -- "The Pentagon Papers 2."

We'd have liked that, too. But we don't have to look back that far for
inspiration when there are so many great reporters at the Times and
elsewhere putting themselves on the line every day for stories that do run
rather than stories that don't. That's the ultimate bathos of the Judy
Miller saga -- appropriate, perhaps, for our virtual, "transparent" age.

2005Tina Brown

© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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