Jewish World Review Nov. 16, 2005 / 14 Mar-Cheshvan, 5766

Paul Greenberg

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Judith Miller's long goodbye | Judith Miller, the definitely former star reporter for The New York Times, just won't go away. She has now, quote-unquote, resigned from the country's paper of dubious record to go on the talk-show circuit.

Bless her heart, the lady still has no idea what she did wrong — or so she says. Having got thoroughly entangled with her source and then playing in-and-out-of-jail games with the law to no clear purpose, here's what she told CNN's Larry King:

"I really don't know what . . . brought about this 40-day tsunami on me, these attacks after I came out of jail. . . ."

Yep, she's still playing the role of martyr — in a show that may go on indefinitely. What a boon her continuing, embarrassing presence in the news will be for all those bloggers out there who live to keep going through The New York Times' dirty laundry. It's almost enough to make you feel sorry for the once good gray lady of American journalism — if only she hadn't brought all this on herself.

The mysterious ways in which The New York Times moves remain inexplicable to a simple editor out here in flyover country. Those ways include letting a pampered reporter like Judith Miller go without adult supervision till she wound up in jail, then proudly standing by her, but on third thought negotiating her retirement after she was sprung.

Last week all concerned tried to end this series of snafus with an exchange of equally empty smiles, letters and compliments. The whole thing brought to mind one of those wary going-away parties for the sort of troublesome employee that everybody in the office wishes had gone away a long time ago.

At one point, the Times' latest top editor, Bill Keller, explained, more or less, though mainly less, that when he had used words like "entanglement" and "misled" in connection with Judith Miller's method of operation, he hadn't meant entanglement or misled. Mr. Keller having thoroughly muddied all the issues, Ms. Miller then told the Associated Press that she was "glad that The New York Times has cleared this up."

The Times was acting like any other corporation that, caught up in an embarrassment of its own making, decides to take refuge in a blizzard of PR statements in hopes the whole thing will go away. Which of course it won't. It was all very sophisticated. Which is another reason some of us love little country papers with no more pretentious goal than to just try to tell the truth and put out the next edition.

Is there anything serious to be learned from this farce?

Yes: Decide what your basic principles are and stick with them.

Instead, these high-powered people at The New York Almighty Times never seem to have sat down quietly somewhere and thought a few things through. They just went from one crisis to another in a kind of absence of mind, leaving things to the lawyers, until they got so involved in each resulting crisis that they never seem to have considered some basic questions in this business. Such as:

  • Is protecting a confidential source more important than telling the paper's readers who's out to get whom in Washington? The readers ought always to be the first concern of a newspaper. But the top brass at the Times were so engrossed in weighing their relations with a star reporter, the rest of the staff and the temporarily confidential source that they seem to have forgotten the people who buy the paper.

  • Is the press above the law? Does protecting a source trump a subpoena to testify — even if a reporter may have witnessed a purported crime, or even made it possible?

  • If members of the press are to be made immune from testifying under such circumstances, how do we determine who is entitled to that exalted status in the law? That is, who's a bona fide member of the press, and who's just an ordinary American citizen who has to reveal the source of something he's repeated when a grand jury wants to know? And how would making such a distinction differ from letting government license the press — which would be a most un-American innovation?

  • Just how freely should a reporter be allowed to promise confidentiality? If the newspaper is going to back up that reporter with all its resources, shouldn't she be required to fill in her editors before entering into any such agreement on behalf of the paper? (Ms. Miller's nickname at the paper was Miss Run Amok, and by now no one can doubt its accuracy.)

  • If a newspaper chooses to stake its case for freedom of the press and the confidentiality of its sources on the shakiest of legal underpinnings, what will be the long-term effects of such a decision? Won't the freedom of the press be weakened, as it has been by this sad carnival of errors?

There is no sign that those at the helm of a great American newspaper ever considered first principles before Ms. Miller and this whole affair grew beyond their control. The result has been still another train wreck at The New York Times, and it will take some time to clear away all the debris.

If only Ms. Miller had invested all that spunk in a better cause than herself! But some figures of controversy will always remain heroic in their own eyes, if only in their own eyes. To them, honest introspection is the name of a foreign country. But do look for Ms. Miller's soon-to-be-published, tell-not-quite-all, self-justifying memoirs at your nearest bookstore. You should be able to find a copy right next to Bill Clinton's.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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