Reporter’s Strength May Also Be Her Weakness
Among the string of prominent and powerful Washingtonians who traipsed through the Alexandria Detention Center to visit New York Times reporter Judith Miller this summer was former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig.
Danzig, who is now a Defense Department bioterrorism consultant, had come to the lockup to offer the embattled journalist comfort and support. Yet he came away from the 30-minute conversation feeling as energized and impressed as he had in many previous meetings with the star reporter.
Danzig described the chat, via phones through a plexiglass divider, as “wonderful.” He said it reminded him of many other encounters over a decade with his friend Miller.
“I always used her as a source of information,” he said, “almost as much as she used me.”
Danzig’s words and the jailhouse pilgrimages of a slew of other heavy hitters -- including U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton, retired Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and former White House counter-terrorism chief Richard A. Clarke -- give a hint of how Miller maintained her prominence for nearly 30 years at one of America’s best newspapers.
Many in Washington’s power elite saw in Miller a kindred spirit: someone passionate about international relations and terrorism, always ready to argue out the latest threat assessment or to gossip about Middle Eastern potentates she knew on a first-name basis.
The tireless 57-year-old reporter helped Washington politicians and diplomats quench their passion for information.
And they returned the favor -- offering morsels that she then turned into front-page exclusives.
But Miller’s perch in the American press has grown increasingly shaky in recent days, with attacks from outside and within the New York Times. One media commentator said Miller should be fired for “journalistic malpractice” for her work in the Valerie Plame leak case. And New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller signaled waning support for the reporter he had recently hailed as a 1st Amendment champion, sending a note to his staff Friday that questioned Miller’s truthfulness.
A few remain solidly with her, including the California First Amendment Coalition, which chastised journalists for abandoning a woman who went to jail for 85 days to protect a confidential source (vice presidential Chief of Staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby). One friend said Miller had fallen victim to a typical Washington “feeding frenzy,” in which the victim’s best qualities are forgotten in a rush to judgment.
Her fate at the newspaper may be determined when Keller returns from a two-week trip to visit Times correspondents in the Far East.
It has been a major comedown for the woman who helped lead her newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting, with stories before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that described the danger of Al Qaeda.
A number of colleagues believe that, as with many dynamic people, Miller’s strength was her weakness. She could land big sources with the best of them. But she didn’t always work as hard to corroborate tips funneled her way, they said. Or as Maureen Dowd, the paper’s acerbic columnist, wrote Saturday in a broadside against Miller: “Investigative reporting is not stenography.”
The Times conceded such a problem in an unusual editors’ note in May 2004 that said the newspaper had inadequately vetted a series of stories, mostly written by Miller (although the note did not name her), on weapons of mass destruction purportedly stockpiled by Iraq.
Times top editors found her difficult to control, her ability to ingratiate herself with those in charge extending inside the Times newsroom and hampering efforts to rein in her zealous -- or overzealous -- reporting.
After the prize-winning Al Qaeda series, then-Executive Editor Howell Raines (later forced out by the scandal over fabrications by reporter Jayson Blair) reportedly urged Miller to “go win [another] Pulitzer.”
That directive made her even bolder, colleagues said.
Douglas Frantz, then Miller’s boss as investigative editor -- and more recently a Los Angeles Times reporter who this month was named an L.A. Times managing editor -- said he and then-Foreign Editor Roger Cohen were undercut when their doubts led them to delay publishing several of Miller’s stories on weapons of mass destruction.
After Miller complained, the New York Times’ then-Managing Editor Gerald Boyd instructed the lower-ranking editors to get out of the star reporter’s way, according to Frantz.
“Judy Miller is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter,” Frantz recalled Boyd telling him, “and your job is to get her stories into the paper.”
Frantz said that despite that admonition, he blocked a Miller story about claims of 1,000 weapons sites in Iraq and also a profile of exile leader Ahmad Chalabi, a source of many of the overblown weapons reports.
Boyd could not be reached for comment.
Miller’s career at the Times has long been characterized by hard work, a zeal for issues and, especially, an ability to gain access to those in power.
As the New York Times’ Cairo bureau chief, she overcame sexism in many Middle Eastern regimes and formed friendships with the likes of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Jordan’s King Hussein.
In the early 1980s colleagues complained bitterly about her relationship with one source: live-in boyfriend Les Aspin, a well-known Wisconsin congressman. He became secretary of Defense under President Clinton and died in 1995.
Friends say it’s too easy now, with Miller under fire, to cite such examples as proof that the controversial reporter crossed the line. They also remind detractors how tirelessly Miller worked -- often first to reach the office and last to leave at night.
“She is such a creature of that policy world in Washington,” said Steven R. Weisman, chief diplomatic correspondent for the New York Times and a longtime Miller friend, “where assumptions are shared and jokes are shared and information is shared.”
Another New York Times colleague, who asked not to be named to protect a friendship with Miller, suggested the odd mix of feelings Miller inspires. After slamming much of Miller’s work, the reporter added with admiration: “But who else would have ever been able to get three interviews with Scooter Libby in, like, two weeks? No one.”
Former Navy Secretary Danzig said he viewed Miller as “someone who is sincerely and deeply concerned about these issues and tried to develop her views with considerable energy and acuity.”
She “lives in the world of policy with a passion,” Danzig added. “I think that is a terrific virtue. But it also generates some risks.”
Indeed, several of her colleagues faulted Miller -- particularly as her star ascended under then-Editor Raines -- for sometimes “shoveling” her sources’ tips into the newspaper.
Even as the first part of the prize-winning terrorism series appeared in January 2001, one of Miller’s colleagues on the project predicted her work habits would cause future trouble. The warning came in an e-mail from reporter Craig Pyes to Stephen Engelberg, then the Times’ investigative editor.
“A reason I don’t have my name on any of her stories is precisely because of this sloppy, single-source reporting,” warned Pyes, now a contract reporter with the Los Angeles Times, in the e-mail. “Which, believe me, when she reports closer to home, you’re going to pay for someday. You heard it here first.”
Miller has conceded that she got the stories about Iraqi weapons wrong. But some colleagues resent how her explanations sometimes have implied a certain inevitability -- that if primary sources are wrong, then incorrect stories must follow.
Times Editor Keller removed Miller from coverage of the war and weapons of mass destruction in the second half of 2003, as the war raged and no unconventional weapons materialized in Iraq.
About that time, Miller began talking with one of the capital’s most powerful men: Libby, the top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney.
In two face-to-face meetings and a phone call with Miller, Libby criticized former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, who had disputed administration claims that Iraq sought uranium for a nuclear weapon. Miller would say later she could not recall exactly what Libby said about Wilson’s wife, the CIA operative Plame.
In May 2004, the lengthy editors’ note backed away from much of Miller’s reporting on those unconventional weapons. Miller was undeterred. She continued to pop up on television, identified as a Times expert on Iraq and weapons of mass destruction.
Keller and Managing Editor Jill Abramson had seen enough. They called the veteran reporter in and ordered her off national security reporting of any kind -- stripping her of a portfolio that had been her obsession for two decades.
Miller left the meeting angry. She took some time off, leading some at the Times to believe she might quit the paper.
The beating in the media and the strictures of her editors may have fazed Miller, but they seem not to have chastened her.
Coming off nearly three months in jail, a difficult grand jury appearance and the attacks of her peers, she has shown no sign of shrinking into the background.
After a few months’ rest, Miller has said, she hopes to return to work. Asked in the New York Times’ story on her saga a week ago what she hoped to cover, she responded: “The same thing I’ve always covered -- threats to our country.”