"She's always been out in front on the stories that are really still the big stories of our age — Islamic militancy, germ warfare, the Iraq War, terrorism," Tom Freston said Tuesday night, introducing Judith Miller at the Harvard Club party for her new book, The Story.
The Iraq War! It is possible to be a bit too far out in front. Even the hawkish crowd gathered in the wood-paneled room, beneath the portraits of former university presidents and their impressive facial hair, didn't complain when another speaker referred to the war as a "misadventure." Miller's book doesn't defend the war, but defends her own role in its run-up. Her argument — in places persuasive, at times hinging on technicalities — is that her reporting wasn't all that bad, and that she wound up taking on more than her share of institutional New York Times guilt.
And it's a provisional defense. She writes at one point that "like most journalists who cover the secretive intelligence and national security agencies, I will continue getting some stories right and others wrong."
That's a bit cavalier for my taste, but Miller's book comes at a good time to talk about bad reporting. The American media is going through one of its ritualistic bloodlettings, this time over at Rolling Stone. Miller's reporting fell apart before her eyes, confronted by the brute fact that, day after day, the elite Army unit she was embedded with failed to find the weapons of mass destruction she'd reported on. Rolling Stone's collapsed in another time-honored way: under the pressure of ideological skepticism and, then, detailed reporting from competing outlets led by the Washington Post.
In Miller's case, there's no simple rule to explain why she got some big stories, like the rise of al-Qaeda, right, but the biggest one so enthusiastically wrong. There is an extensive Judith Miller literature that tries to figure it out, one of whose highlights is a dishy 2004 profile by Frank Foer. The wounds were fresh and his sources were obviously reveling in schadenfreude, but Foer conceded that "the Judy Miller problem is complicated." Some 6,500 words later, he concluded with this confusing suggestion: "Making the process more transparent is easier than reforming the profession itself, which inevitably relies on people." Well, yes. (Is it possible to analyze these things without veering into total banality? Among the many thousands of words published by Columbia Journalism Review on the Rolling Stone debacle is the lede, "Journalism has taken a lot of hits in recent memory.")
Jack Shafer, who was one of the reporters a decade ago who dug most aggressively into the Times's Iraq reporting, wrote recently that "Only the sentimental believe in teachable moments. For the rest of us there is only disaster recovery."
In the prosperous alternate media world of Miller's book party, hosted by the pollster Doug Schoen, none of that really amounted to much. The room was full of her friends and sources (and she's the kind of reporter for whom that's a huge, overlapping set), with were shoutouts to Rep. Peter King and former Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, in the audience, and to Kelly's ex-CIA deputy David Cohen. To them, Miller was still the person she'd been right before she (and she alone) was forced out of the Times over their coverage: a fearsome, aggressive journalist, if perhaps of the access school, and a free-speech martyr for her refusal to give up a source to the court. The crowd also included Clinton patrons Alan Patricof and Steve Rattner; the First Amendment lawyer George Freeman; a guy who was having dinner the following night with Woody Allen; a guy who bragged that his nephew is working for Alan Dershowitz. Ken Auletta was there, Tom Wolfe was said to be en route. Quite a bit of money and power, though it wasn't totally clear who had just come, like me, mostly to gawk.
Miller, who was rescued by institutions of the right after being thrown out of the Times, comfortably inhabits its worldview. She thanked the "extraordinary people at Fox News who know what it is to be controversial for the right reasons" — because they "go after stories before the others realize they are stories."
(Fox staffers like former reporter Jana Winter, now of The Intercept and also in attendance, sometimes do great reporting. This is not why Fox is controversial.)
The world in which Miller finds herself is comfortable, and also easy to ridicule. Her book, too, leaves a lot to kick around. She is, like a lot of reporters, ideologically incoherent — she opens by bragging about her association with I.F. Stone, who many of her current friends consider a Soviet agent. She concludes by thanking Roger Ailes for taking a chance on a "brunette with little prior TV experience." More seriously, she's insistent on trotting out technicalities — a to-be-sure paragraph here and there in her Iraq reporting — that read more like pro forma disclaimers than the sort of red flags being raised at the time by Knight Ridder's Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel.
But rereading a key critique of the Times's coverage, Michael Massing's 2004 New York Review of Books article "Now They Tell Us," it's oddly hard to put your finger on what about the aggressive, ambitious Miller was fundamentally different from the many other aggressive, ambitious, flawed reporters who break most of the important stories in America, and always have. If her methods and imperfect batting average freak you out, go read about Richard Nixon's great adversary, the oddly forgotten Jack Anderson, who bribed, lied, and blackmailed his way to revelatory reports on targets including Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover.
She had one set of Iraqi sources who were, it seems, lying, and one who were overeager to hype those lies. She was the kind of reporter who championed her sources, and her critics still view her as having championed their cause, the war. But even Massing, whom Miller does not remember fondly in her book, scolds her and her colleagues for fairly common journalistic sins, which she committed at a moment when the stakes were extremely high: "The Iraq saga should cause journalists to examine the breadth of their sources," he wrote, and quoted Knight Ridder's John Walcott suggesting Miller's access had turned into a curse. Reporters were "too reliant on high-level officials instead of cultivating less glamorous people in the bowels of the bureaucracy" at a time when the top-level officials were all spinning hard.
The question that Miller's book raises is whether she deserved her exile. She was the only reporter driven out of the Times over Iraq. But the mistakes Massing described are things all reporters balance — how much to rely on which source, and when to go with partial information from people with agendas. They raise the uncomfortable fact that when you put your faith in a free press, you are not putting your trust in the most staid institutions or the most responsible, consistent actors. You are putting your freedom in the hands of a bunch of lunatics. Some of the most important characters in the free press are a lot like Judith Miller. Their work is also messy and imperfect. Their sources have weird grudges and opaque agendas. These reporters, many of whom have broken huge stories and some of whom have also made huge errors, don't like journalism school professors, and journalism school professors don't like them. The media has always been like this. We are trying very hard to get it right. And now you get to see us screw up every day on Twitter. It's not a particularly edifying spectacle.
So should you care what Miller thinks about Rolling Stone and the Worst Journalist of 2015, as certified by the sages up at Columbia, Sabrina Rubin Erdely? I'm not sure. But I asked her, and the first thing she said was that she thought the magazine had, in the end, done the right thing: "I'm glad she wasn't fired," she said. "Everybody is entitled to a misstep."
"What she's gone through is very painful and will make her a better journalist," Miller said.
And she said she was watching the media's delighted pile-on with little joy.
"It's very destructive, and it's not good for us — because without us, for all of our flaws, there's no democracy," she said.
Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
Contact Ben Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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