Jewish World Review Oct. 31, 2005 / 28 Tishrei, 5766

Paul Greenberg

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Self-portrait of a martyr: Judith Miller begins to annoy

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com |

Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,

A medley of extemporanea;

And love is a thing that can never go wrong,

And I am Marie of Roumania.


— Dorothy Parker

Judith Miller continues to perform most unimpressively. And perform and perform. Ever since she got out of the hoosegow, The New York Times' reporter, celebrity and general yentah has been appearing on panels, testifying before Congress on behalf of a federal shield law for the press, accepting an award or two, talking about maybe writing a book, and just continuing to make the news instead of reporting it.

In short, Judith Miller has become the subject of her own stories, which isn't exactly a recipe for producing disinterested journalism.

And the more she performs, the clearer it becomes that the lady's real talent is for martyrdom, not journalism. She is supposed to have gone to jail in order to defend a principle — the confidentiality of a journalist's sources — but while her zeal may have been commendable, the principle she was defending remains murky.

After all, one source she was supposed to be protecting — the White House's Scooter Libby — formally waived confidentiality along with a bunch of other higher-ups in the administration long before this whole brouhaha got under way.

That wasn't good enough for Ms. Miller, who insisted on getting the word from her source personally. In that case, why didn't she ask him for a waiver sooner and avoid that 85-day stay at government expense?

The more involved her explanations grow, the more unsatisfactory they remain.

The picture of Judith Miller as some kind of martyr to freedom of the press begins to seem more and more like only a flattering self-portrait. By now that image is starting to curl up around the edges, and even come apart at the center.

Just because someone pronounces herself a woman of principle doesn't make her one, especially if the principle she's defending becomes harder and harder to discern. It's clear that Judith Miller sees herself as a combination of Mata Hari and John Peter Zenger, but if you peer through the tangled legal web she's woven around herself, it becomes even clearer that she is just . . . Judith Miller.

Isn't journalism supposed to be about informing the reader rather than just protecting sources? And doesn't the reader deserve to know that the White House and CIA are sniping at each other?

Instead, Ms. Miller seems under the impression that the source's confidentiality is the important thing. She goes to jail to protect that principle, at least by her own (blinding) lights, but the reader never hears about all that infighting in the administration. At least not from her.

Every time a reporter agrees to extend confidentiality to a source, his first obligation — to the reader — is compromised. Maybe only a little, or maybe a lot, depending on the value of the information received in exchange for not disclosing the a source's identity.

In promising confidentiality, the reporter has to decide whether the information is worth that compromise. In this case, it was worth so little that Judith Miller never shared it with the public, at least not before it became only an incidental part of what she clearly felt was more important: her story.

Judith Miller's editor, the Times' Bill Keller, speaks of her becoming entangled with her sources. But every reporter who grants a source confidentiality has entangled himself to some extent — and kept a secret from — his reader.

As for a federal law that would protect journalists from having to reveal their sources, how draw up one that would apply to this peculiar case? Because the news is no longer that a falsifying, overflowingly full-of-himself critic of the administration — Joseph Wilson IV — is married to an employee of the CIA, Valerie Plame, who more or less got him his controversial mission to Africa. The question has become who leaked that information to the media.

Deliberately and maliciously exposing a CIA spy is against the law, but the purported felony couldn't have been committed without Judith Miller or some other journalist being present at the scene of the crime. Do we really want to protect journalists from being subpoenaed if they not only have witnessed a crime but, by their presence, made it possible?

And that's only one of the problems with shield laws. The big problem with such laws is that they risk making journalists a favored class, setting the fourth estate apart from other Americans — as if freedom of the press belonged only to the press rather than to all of us. Only a carefully drawn shield law would avoid that danger and, if it were carefully and responsibly drawn, it wouldn't protect a Judith Miller in a case like this.

Even The New York Times seems to be growing weary of its reporter as her story grows curiouser and curiouser. At least one of her editors at the Times feels she misled him when she denied being the recipient of a leak about Joe Wilson's family connection with the CIA. A reference in her notes to a "Valerie Flame" raises still more questions about her reporting — and about what she didn't report.

Of course ace reporters, like columnists, have no egos, and would never keep secrets from their readers, or seek celebrity, or play up their own heroism. And I'm the Queen of Roumania.

This whole, inflated snafu hasn't yet reached the proportions of the Jayson Blair-Howell Raines-Pinch Sulzberger super-sized scandal at the Times a while back, but as that great press critic Yogi Berra might say, it's starting to feel a little like deja vu all over again.

Only this time, instead of a serial prevaricator, the Times seems to be stuck with a martyr given to complaining about mainly self-inflicted wounds.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. All the quotations in this column were culled from Tuesday's edition of the Democrat-Gazette. Send your comments by clicking here.

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