There’s nothing like a smart, well-written piece of counterintuitive journalism to tweak conventional wisdom and call the legions of pundits to account for unimaginative thinking.
There’s also nothing like a gratuitously counterintuitive story that stretches the argument and the facts so thin that you can see right through them to watch the writer frantically spinning away.
In this week’s New York Observer, Niall Stanage pens an article of the latter sort, a thoroughly covered and twisted-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life Judy Miller story.
Stanage writes that “few people doubt that [Miller] was pushed into retirement … Perhaps there are good reasons for her ouster that have not been made public. As things stand, however, the central question in the whole imbroglio — did Ms. Miller deserve a de facto firing? — remains unresolved.”
But does it? In the weeks between Miller’s release from prison and her retirement from the Times, she hardly helped her employer deal with the firestorm of criticism being leveled against both her and the paper. In an account of the case written by a team of Times scribes, Miller “generally would not discuss her interactions with editors, elaborate on the written account of her grand jury testimony or allow reporters to review her notes,” as the reporters put it. Not exactly the kind of team playing that endears one to one’s bosses.
Then there’s the fact that Miller’s account of events contradicts those of her editors. According to the Times’ account of events, after Miller found out about Plame’s identity, she claims she “made a strong recommendation to [her] editor” that an article about Plame and Wilson be pursued, while declining to identify the editor in question. To this, the paper adds, “Ms. Abramson, the Washington bureau chief at the time, said Ms. Miller never made any such recommendation.” Instances like that would likely have made it just the tiniest bit uncomfortable for Miller to come back to the paper and pitch in as if nothing had ever happened.
Further undermining her credibility were the oddities her testimony wrought. Case in point is her faulty memory, and the dubious “finding” — after she had twice testified — of a notebook in her office containing notes from her first interview with Libby. What’s more, she couldn’t recall how the name “Valerie Flame” got into her notebook, or who told her.
Finally, we still have the question of just why the hell she went to jail in the first place. The day after Miller was released, the Washington Post wrote that her claim to have gone to jail to protect Libby’s anonymity came as a surprise to Libby and his lawyer. The Times reported that the Libby camp thought they had released Miller to testify, and that during a September phone call between Miller, Libby and their lawyers, “The discussions were at times strained, with Mr. Libby and Mr. Tate’s asserting that they communicated their voluntary waiver to another lawyer for Ms. Miller, Floyd Abrams, more than year ago.”
So, instead of Stanage’s “central question” being “did Ms. Miller deserve a de facto firing?” it seems that a more apt one would be, “Why did Ms. Miller go to jail?” That has never been fully answered, and Miller’s own refusal to come clean with all the facts has only added to the general sense of confusion and bitterness toward her.
Stanage’s conclusion that ” the evidence that has emerged so far doesn’t justify the opprobrium that has been heaped upon [Miller’s] head,” is simply so counterintuitive that it’s downright silly.