Since the New York Times published its official article, The Miller Case: A Notebook, a Cause, a Jail Cell and a Deal, about the paper’s handling of Judith Miller’s role in the Plame Affair, criticism of the paper of record has been fast, furious and flummoxed. Critics are aghast at the internal machinations undertaken in an attempt to cover for their star reporter, Judith Miller.
The NYT, already suffering from public suspicion due to Miller’s hawkish reporting echoing the Bush administration’s false claims of the presence of WMDs in Iraq, along with the ramifications of the Jayson Blair scandal in 2003, may have just sunk its credibility and integrity forever in the minds of many readers in its telling of the Miller story. In the process, it may also have taken down other media along with it.
A country in which most citizens no longer trust their government or their media to tell them the truth is a country that sits on very shaky ground. Perceptions that media organizations are biased to one political persuasion or another due to their editorial stances result in a mistrust of the reporting contained in the supposedly factual front page stories as it is. But, when it is revealed that a newspaper timidly holds back the reporting of one of the most important stories of the day in order to protect one staff journalist and allows its reporters to intentionally mislabel sources*, any remaining trust is completely shattered.
The case of Judith Miller’s relentless drive to push Bush administration propaganda and to serve it up as fact in the face of evidence to the contrary only proves to readers that some media institutions are simply unable to come close to anything like objective reporting. And the way in which the NYT allowed Miller to run amok with her agenda shows that, in some instances, they just didn’t care. Miller claims that she only wrote what her sources told her but she did that to the exclusion of other credible sources who disputed her claims.
As veteran reporter Sam Donaldson recently said in a speech about media bias to the Michigan State School of Journalism, the purpose of journalists is not so much to be “fair and balanced” as it is to be “fair and objective”. That means that reporters ought to consider all aspects of a story, not necessarily resulting in a writing or a telling that gives equal weight to both sides, but that at least presents both sides objectively according to the facts. In that, Miller failed. In that, the NYT failed by not allowing its reporters to cover the CIA leak investigation as thoroughly as its readers deserved, deciding instead to provide cover for Miller as she faced her legal battles while leaving it to other media institutions to make up for their shortfalls. In that scenario, it certainly is understandable that staff at the NYT felt intensely uncomfortable with their management’s positions.
What happened at the NYT ought to be a wake up call to all consumers of media as well as to those who participate in the fourth estate. The NYT has blown the cover off of how editorial, staff and managerial decisions are made and we’d be fools to believe that such antics don’t go on every day in other media organizations as well.
Groups, publications and organizations that monitor the media such as Media Matters, FAIR, Editor and Publisher, FactCheck, The Center for Media and Democracy, the American and Columbia Journalism Reviews – along with countless others, including our blogs – have far less weight and exposure than the MSM and are fighting a continual uphill battle to expose the prevalent problems. Unfortunately, the general public tends to buy what the MSM sells hook, line and sinker unless faults are revealed in a big way. Hopefully, the outing of the NYT practices will provide another one of those moments.
Here are some examples of what just a few prominent voices are saying. There are many, many others and you’ll be hard-pressed to find many NYT defenders:
From Democracy Now!:
Retired CBS News correspondent Bill Lynch said, “This is as close as one can get to government licensing of journalists.”
Lynch went on to write “Miller violated her duty to report the truth by accepting a binding obligation to withhold key facts the government deems secret, even when that information might contradict the reportable “facts.””
Greg Mitchell, Editor & Publisher:
As the devastating Times article, and her own first-person account, make clear, Miller should be promptly dismissed for crimes against journalism — and her own paper. And her editor, who has not taken responsibility, should apologize to readers.
You can listen to or read the transcript of an interview with Greg Mitchell and Michael Isikoff of Newsweek by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! here
The wounds that Miller has caused the Times–some of which were self-inflicted by the paper’s management–have not been cauterized. They still bleed. Perhaps what is most disturbing is that the people in charge of this sometimes-great paper either cannot or will not see that. It should not be news to these newspeople that more explanation is required–that is, owed to the readers who would like to trust Judy Miller’s newspaper.
Via Howard Kurtz at the Washington Post:
Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Washington-based Project for Excellence in Journalism, applauded the Times for its “candor” in revealing “a serious divide within the paper” about Miller and management’s handling of the case. But, he said, “the acknowledgment that the editor and publisher of the paper did not know what Miller’s source had told her is remarkable. . . . It is still not clear entirely what principle Miller felt she was protecting that also allowed her to testify.
“The Times felt helpless,” [Jay] Rosen said. “It couldn’t print the news. It was very much trapped.”
That last statement by Jay Rosen raises the crux of the issue. The NYT, responsible to its readers, failed to accurately report the news about this case because of the legal pressures. Some may buy that they were “trapped”. I don’t. The Times could have carried on with its business, allowing its reporters the journalistic freedom they deserved, while ensuring that nothing about what its management knew about the case leaked out. That would have been a very easy task considering that what was known was held close to the editors vests anyway. The muzzling of reporters, in the manner of the NYT management, in order to protect one of their own cannot be seen as “fair and objective” in any sense of those words.
Journalists far and wide, along with the general public, have every reason to question the validity of what passes for news as presented by all media organizations. The NYT has just raised that skepticism to a much larger level. At least, in the end, they did tell their story (or as much as they wanted to about it) truthfully – we think. But, they did it to the detriment of many other media types as the public will now no longer take what they hear and see at face value. If that is the tarnished silver lining in this mess, those of us who care about integrity and honesty in journalism have just been given one more tool in the hard push to accountability, but it will be very difficult for those in the fourth estate to redeem themselves any time soon and that is a threat to true democracy.
*Judith Miller: “My recollection, I told him, was that Mr. Libby wanted to modify our prior understanding that I would attribute information from him to a “senior administration official.” When the subject turned to Mr. Wilson, Mr. Libby requested that he be identified only as a “former Hill staffer.” I agreed to the new ground rules because I knew that Mr. Libby had once worked on Capitol Hill.”