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Comments by YACCS
Monday, May 31, 2004

Understanding Judy Miller: Learning to read a magazine story

Her daddy ran with the mob. Where she learned her manners.

This is second in a series of posts about understanding the media. Magazine pieces are written slightly differently than news stories, in that they take time to gather and to be produced. The strict segregation of the newspaper newsroom doesn't exist in a magazine, so writers can write about many different things.

This piece on Judy Miller is written as a response by Times staffers against their boss's coddling of the most hated employee on the news staff. Make no mistake, Judy Miller is hated by her coworkers, which is rare in the incestuous, closely knit, no secrets world of the newsroom. I mean journalists sleep with each other, drink with each other and know each other's secrets. There is a general understanding that what goes on in the newsroom stays in the newsroom. For people to leap up and run down a collegue, and this goes into her professional ethics, is rare.

Former Chicago Trib columnist Bob Greene shagged many a young woman(some teenagers) to the utter disgust of his collegues. But even when his adultery was exposed, many of his coworkers, some of whom could not stand him, defended him. They defended his work, if not the man, and some defended the man. Other noted newsroom grumps like Jimmy Breslin, are never discussed negatively by their coworkers, even when they don't get along. People keep their shit in the newsroom.

Why are newsrooms so prone to exposing your life? Because even today, they are open workplaces. Have a girlfriend, everyone knows it. Have a fight with the wife, people hear it. Given the antics and egos of reporters, a lot of secrets have to be kept for social peace at work.

So when people talk about Judy Miller and her bed habits, there is powerful hate going on. I'll get into her mistakes later on.

The Source of the Trouble

Pulitzer Prize winner Judith Miller’s series of exclusives about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—courtesy of the now-notorious Ahmad Chalabi—helped the New York Times keep up with the competition and the Bush administration bolster the case for war. How the very same talents that caused her to get the story also caused her to get it wrong.

By Franklin Foer

Miller is a star, a diva. She wrote big stories, won big prizes. Long before her WMD articles ran, Miller had become a newsroom legend—and for reasons that had little to do with the stories that appeared beneath her byline. With her seemingly bottomless ambition—a pair of big feet that would stomp on colleagues in her way and even crunch a few bystanders—she cut a larger-than-life figure that lent itself to Paul Bunyan–esque retellings. Most of these stories aren’t kind. Of course, nobody said journalism was a country club. And her personality was immaterial while she was succeeding, winning a Pulitzer, warning the world about terrorism, bio-weapons, and Iraq’s war machine. But now, who she is, and why she prospered, makes for a revealing cautionary tale about the culture of American journalism

What this does is set the reader up for a series of pretty brutal accusations

Installed amid colleagues—they were almost all men—who’d spent decades working their way up the paper’s food chain, Miller stood out immediately for her sharp elbows. While the culture of the paper assiduously practices omertà—what happens in the newsroom stays in the newsroom—Miller is cause for reporters to break the code of silence. An unusual number of her co-workers have gone out of their way to separate themselves and their paper from Miller. Few are brave enough to attach their names to the stories, but they all sound a similar refrain. “She’s a shit to the people she works with,” says one. “When I see her coming, my instinct is to go the other way,” says another. They recite her foibles and peccadilloes, from getting temporarily banned by the Times’ D.C. car service for her rudeness to throwing a fit over rearranged items on her desk. Defenders are few and far between. And even the staunchest ones often concede her faults. Bill Keller told me in an e-mail, “She has sharp elbows. She is possessive of her sources, and passionate about her stories, and a little obsessive. If you interview people who have worked with Sy Hersh, I’ll bet you’ll find some of the same complaints.”

Except for one thing, no one has EVER questioned Sy Hersh's ethics in serious way. The rudeness thing is a big deal. Journalists need people, both inside and outside to survive the Kremlin on the Hudson. Keller has to defend her, because she's still on his staff. But he's a tool.And many of her collegues will leave her to hang. She's like the salesman who butters up his clients and shits on the office staff. When trouble comes, they jump in on the pile. You hear not ONE word of defense from her coworkers. Not her former partners, not her peers on other papers.

Miller also racked up the sort of adventure tales that correspondents love to dispense after a dram or two of whiskey. She witnessed a hanging in Sudan, flew across Afghanistan in a rickety Northern Alliance helicopter held together in places by duct tape. “Judy is a smart, relentless, incredibly well-sourced, and fearless reporter,” says Keller. “It’s a little galling to watch her pursued by some of these armchair media ethicists who have never ventured into a war zone or earned the right to carry Judy’s laptop.”

That's not the problem. It's her peers deafening silence which should concern Keller. They will simply not defend her. Not just the people on the Times, but collegues like Robin Wright of the WaPo. If she was a decent person, she would have defenders

Long before Miller’s current difficulties, she was known at the paper for a different sin: rudeness, amplified by a legendary temper. Seth Faison, a foreign correspondent who has punched his ticket with the Times in China, tells the following story: In 1993, Miller had been billeted over to the Metro desk from her day job as a staff writer at the Times Magazine to help report on the World Trade Center bombing. Faison, a young Metro reporter, had left the office for jury duty. During his absence, Miller ensconced herself at his desk. “I had been at the Times for less than two years, and I’m not a very assertive person. And so I just said, ‘Judy, could I sit here?’ She said, ‘You have to go someplace else.’ ”

When Faison went to his editors, they did nothing to help him. “They held up their hands palm up, like, ‘I’m not going to touch this one.’ They didn’t want the wrath of Judy Miller.” And so for a week, without ever acknowledging Faison’s refugee status, Miller occupied his territory.

The epicenter of Miller-bashing is the Washington bureau. The phenomenon has a long history. During her tumultuous time as deputy bureau chief in the late eighties, she proposed reassigning many reporters out, to other bureaus and lesser posts. Adam Clymer, who served as the paper’s political editor, recalls, “She ran the bureau day to day, and that regime was probably the unhappiest in my experience.”

According to Clymer, she would call reporters and editors in the middle of the night to complain about stories. She found an unusual way to pass on others’ complaints as well. To listen to a daily feed from the afternoon story meeting in New York, she moved a squawk box onto her desk in the newsroom, where everyone else in the bureau could hear the feed, too. They could eavesdrop on top editors ripping into colleagues’ stories with vicious remarks obviously not intended for wide distribution.

Tact is a major tool in business success. Miller has none. In fact, her collegues and former collegues are lining up to stick a shiv in her because they feel wronged by her. Revenge is a dish best served cold and she's made enemies for over 25 years.

At a paper that prides itself on at least a veneer of collegiality, Miller’s reporting tactics often left jaws agape. According to two Times veterans, reporters at the Pentagon and on other beats have frequently found themselves calling their sources, only to be told, “I’ve already talked to Judy Miller.”

They charge her with forcing her bylines onto stories, staunchly arguing for the addition of her name after adding mere dribs and drabs of information. “She’s not afraid to get her byline by bigfooting. In fact, that’s how she gets many of them,” charges one of her colleagues.

But when there is trouble, it appears she’s more than happy to pass around the responsibility. One incident that still rankles happened last April, when Miller co-bylined a story with Douglas Jehl on the WMD search that included a quote from Amy Smithson, an analyst formerly at the Henry L. Stimson Center. A day after it appeared, the Times learned that the quote was deeply problematic. To begin with, it had been supplied to Miller in an e-mail that began, “Briefly and on background”—a condition that Miller had flatly broken by naming her source. Miller committed a further offense by paraphrasing the quote and distorting Smithson’s analysis. One person who viewed the e-mail says that it attributed views to Smithson that she clearly didn’t hold. An embarrassing correction ensued. And while the offense had been entirely Miller’s, there was nothing in the correction indicating Jehl’s innocence.

The bad feelings from these incidents have festered over time, and as problems have come to light with Miller’s reporting, her critics at the paper have eagerly piled on. Over the course of the past six months, Washington reporters have complained vociferously about Miller. They have been especially angry that Miller appears on Larry King Live and Paula Zahn Now to discuss Iraqi WMD. “There’s anger and embarrassment among the staff that Judy is still the voice of the Times on the subject,” says one reporter. In addition, some of these reporters have frankly told their editors that they will never share a byline with her. All this pressure has succeeded in forcing official reforms. The paper’s current policy is that any time Miller visits Washington, her editor Matthew Purdy must provide bureau chief Philip Taubman and his deputies with advance notice and explain her purpose for visiting. In January, the bureau officially deprived Miller of her desk. Although this was ostensibly done to make space, according to denizens of the bureau it had an intentional symbolic value, too. “It gave the bureau a way to move her out without saying it was moving her out,” says a reporter.

Stealing credit in a world of egomanics is a way to make enemies. Miller is not only sloppy, but makes enemies without regard. She acts as if the Times is there to serve her, not the other way around. You can do that if you suck up to the right people, but there is a limit to how long it will work. When it doesn't, it fails spectacularly.

Where Miller exhibited so much hostility to other reporters, she would be fawning and generous to her sources. “Judy treats her sources well, with a sense of loyalty. She’s an attentive and courteous person to them,” one Times reporter says. Her strength was that she viewed the relationships as more than transactional. Her sources were her friends.

According to some of her critics, they have occasionally been more than friends. In the early eighties, she shared a Georgetown house with her boyfriend, Wisconsin congressman Les Aspin—a rising star in the Democratic Party, who went on to become Bill Clinton’s first secretary of Defense. Aspin, many noted, had appeared a dozen times in Miller’s pieces, offering sage words about national security. Certain catty colleagues liked to read these stories aloud. Each time the phrase “Aspin said” appeared, a reporter would add, “rolling over in bed.” When Reagan nominated Richard Burt to be assistant secretary of State for European affairs, Jesse Helms and other right-wingers bludgeoned him for their relationship. “It would help [your chances for confirmation],” Orrin Hatch delicately wrote to Burt, “if you could lay to rest the rumors about Judith Miller’s articles on arms control appearing so soon after your own meetings with her. . . .”

The gossip about Miller’s romantic life was circulated most widely by a columnist writing in Spy magazine under the pseudonym J. J. Hunsecker. He chronicled her exploits, referring to her as “frisky deputy bureau chief Judith ‘Is that a banana in your pocket . . .?’ Miller.” As a commentator on the mores of the Times, Hunsecker lacked a certain subtlety. “Miller has been enriching the lives of high-level sources around Washington with her own very special brand of journalistic involvement,” the columnist sneered in 1988. But gradually, the allegations moved from innuendo to out-and-out rumormongering. The column reported, outlandishly, that President George H. W. Bush called his resident political genius, Lee Atwater, into his office “and informed him that it might be better if he ended his very special relationship with Miller.” Hunsecker was hardly credible. He could produce some howlers, and nothing he wrote could necessarily be believed. But the point wasn’t his information, but the way he obtained it. Colleagues within the Times had come to despise Miller so greatly that they apparently picked up the phone, called Spy, and dished their hearts out.

This isn't exactly the way I remember it. Miller's sex life was a joke in Spy, but they were not the only people complaining. Judy the Mattress was widely known around journalism circles, as were questions about her ethics. When Todd Purdum, bailed out his then girlfriend (now wife) Dee Dee Myers out of jail on a DUI charge, his editors were pissed he hadn't mentioned that he was dating the White House Press Secretary. They were not happy to see him leading her out of the MPD station on their morning news. Miller, otoh, was quoting her Congressman boyfriend in news stories. And this was 15 years ago. Miller was pounding mattresses for news, and none of her editors thought fit to call her on it.

She must have been awful for that kind of dishing to take place. It was the kind of thing which really hurt her reputation and it was done for spite. And the sad fact is that rumors about her bed hopping have not stopped. The Howie Kurtz story about MET Alpha drip with the same kind of unspoken allegations. She's hardly the only woman to sleep with the "wrong" people at the Times, but she made so many enemies that they felt no reason to keep her little secrets.

Last month, I traded e-mail with Eugene Pomeroy, a former National Guard soldier who is now working in Baghdad as a contractor for a security firm. During the war, Pomeroy served as the public-affairs officer for MET Alpha. This meant that he had one primary duty: to shepherd Judy Miller around Iraq. It wasn’t a particularly happy experience. In one e-mail to me, he joked, “As far as I can gather, not many people at Defense liked this woman, and the sense I got was that she wasn’t their problem anymore now that she was in Iraq. Maybe they were hoping that she’d step on a mine. I certainly was.”

Miller guarded her exclusive access with ferocity. When the Post’s Barton Gellman overlapped in MET Alpha for a day, Miller instructed its members not to talk to him.

According to Pomeroy, as well as an editor at the Times, Miller had helped negotiate her own embedding agreement with the Pentagon—an agreement so sensitive that, according to one Times editor, Rumsfeld himself signed off on it. Although she never fully acknowledged the specific terms of that arrangement in her articles, they were as stringent as any conditions imposed on any reporter in Iraq. “Any articles going out had to be, well, censored,” Pomeroy told me. “The mission contained some highly classified elements and people, what we dubbed the ‘Secret Squirrels,’ and their ‘sources and methods’ had to be protected and a war was about to start.” Before she filed her copy, it would be censored by a colonel who often read the article in his sleeping bag, clutching a small flashlight between his teeth. (When reporters attended tactical meetings with battlefield commanders, they faced similar restrictions.)

As Miller covered MET Alpha, it became increasingly clear that she had ceased to respect the boundaries between being an observer and a participant. And as an embedded reporter she went even further, several sources say. While traveling with MET Alpha, according to Pomeroy and one other witness, she wore a military uniform.

Up until Vietnam, this was standard practice. Reporters wore uniforms. For her to wear a full set of fatigues would be uncommon as hell these days, because it could get you shot. Miller had some kind of relationship with the unit's leaders, one so disturbing that serveral warrant and comissioned officers went to the rival Washington Post to complain. They knew that complaining about her actions could raise questions about their conduct and did it anyway.

Another management problem was that Miller, like many in her profession, didn’t take well to editing. “Judy has never been shy about crawling over the heads of editors,” says one retired Times colleague. And Raines had crafted Judy’s assignment so that it became extremely easy for her to circumvent the desks. According to one of her editors, she worked stories for investigative one day, foreign the next, and the Washington bureau the day after. It was never clear who controlled or edited her. When one desk stymied her, she’d simply hustle over to another and pitch her story there. It was an editorial vacuum worsened by the absence of a top editor on the investigative unit, her nominal home. Between Doug Frantz’s departure for the Los Angeles Times in March 2003 and Matthew Purdy’s arrival in January 2004, Miller had almost no high-level supervision from editors with investigative experience.

Many editors I spoke to consider Miller to be such a high-maintenance, uncollegial writer that they’d rather not deal with her at all. One Times veteran says, “She considers us to be her minions.” The process of editing her sounds like an exercise in misery, requiring a constant subjection to her fits of anger; it draws editors into her interoffice disputes with other reporters. Another adds, “There’s only one editor who has had the skill, energy, and willingness to harness her energy—Stephen Engelberg.” But after Engelberg edited a series on Al Qaeda for which Miller and her unit won a Pulitzer in 2001, he left the paper, leaving Miller without the strong hand capable of directing and containing her zealousness. It was a perilous dynamic: By being so difficult, she became so much more vulnerable to journalistic sins than her more affable colleagues.

So why did it take so long to run an editor’s note? In the newsroom, there are several theories. The first, and least persuasive, is the Sulzberger factor. “There was always the sense, true or not, that she had a benefactor at the top,” says Seth Faison. When Miller joined the Times in the late seventies, she arrived in the Washington bureau at about the same time as Arthur Sulzberger Jr.—a recent college graduate getting hands-on experience in the shop floor of the family business. The D.C. office had only about half a dozen reporters under the age of 35, including Sulzberger, Miller, Steve Rattner, and Phil Taubman. They clung to one another

Judy worked the system to get what she wanted. The problem is that by doing so and bigfooting her way around the office, it left the paper open for a major mistake.

Ok, what's the missing part from this story? Miller's ties to the neo cons. It's way too easy to explain away the reputation destroying scandal by tossing blame on some squirrely behavior by Howell Raines or her sex life. She wrote a book with wingnut Laurie Mylroie in the 90's and was obviously close to the ruling junta at State DOD. The question you have to ask about Miller was if she was pushing a political agenda, regardless of the consequence.

Unlike what she may or may not do with her vagina and her large brown eyes, her politics being questioned is the WMD of journalism. No one cares, except on ethical grounds, if she fucked or fucks her sources. But to write politically biased stories is the greatest sin one could commit. Worse than making up stories, worse than getting things wrong. To accuse her of it is like accusing a CIA agent of treason. Even the implication is so serious, so deadly, that it is more likely to harm the accuser than than the accusee.

But there is real reason here to ask. Her reporting so relied on a few key sources, and she was given such access, that one has to wonder if this happened because they knew she wouldn't question their spin?

People outside the profession think reporters routinely have political biases. Nothing, and I mean nothing, could be further from the truth. Bias is the worst of the newsroom sins and one most people would be ashamed to be accused of. It is very easy to leave journalism and work in politics. I've done it, and it's common. But to stay as a reporter and to push an agenda is a very serious charge.

But Miller was SO wrong and so off base, that questioning her agenda is called for. She never even questioned how her sources kept coming up dry. Which most people would be angry as hell at. But MIller defended her reporting and her sources for a year. Even when it was clear that her work was wrong. Her editors have not even considered that she might have had an agenda in her reporting. Was it as simple as her plotting with Rummy? No. But since she shared a world view with these people, it was easy to stick with them and ignore the truth. And her editors have not even begun to ask her the hard questions they need to ask. Maybe they'll avoid it and let her go off to think tank land. But I seriously doubt Miller can withstand the emnity from her coworkers and the outside. At some point, before the end of the summer, she's going to have to get a job from her friends. Her actions, whether it was fucking warrant officers or being a useful fool for the neocons, have harmed the credibility of her employer beyond explaination. No one is going to protect her. She's made too many enemies for that.

It is only a matter of time before the question is raised why Miller kept her job for far worse sins than the mentally ill Jayson Blair was fired for. And if the questions come from the outside, the Times will have to worry about accusations of racism, no matter how well-deserved his firing was. And the Times black opponents have plenty of reason to go after them. What I don't think Bill Keller gets, and his bosses are blind to, is that journalists made a very nasty stink over Blair, some many black people felt was unfair. I don't, because I despise plagerists. But keeping Miller on is not just an internal or Washington problem. It affects the entire paper and they have to deal with it.

posted by Steve @ 7:54:00 PM

7:54:00 PM

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