Seth Mnookin on Judy Miller, Arthur Sulzberger and Outward Bound

Seth Mnookin discusses his recent Vanity Fair article about Judith Miller and the New York Times.

Seth Mnookin (Photo: Nancy Crampton)

Seth Mnookin is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, a former senior writer for Newsweek, and the author of Hard News : The Scandals at The New York Times and Their Meaning for American Media. In an article titled “Unreliable Sources”, which appears in the current issue of Vanity Fair, Mnookin explores how the recent Judith Miller saga has impacted theTimes.

Felix Gillette: Were you surprised that both New York Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. and Judith Miller refused to talk to you for your Vanity Fair article?

Seth Mnookin: No, I wasn’t surprised. Let me back up. When I started work on my book Hard News, Arthur initially did what he could to have people not talk to me. He said that it was in the best interest of the newspaper that the book, potentially, not happen. I certainly understand that. It wasn’t a period that they were interested in reexamining. I haven’t talked to Arthur directly about my book. But the feedback I’ve gotten from people who have talked to him is that he was — again, understandably — not thrilled about some of the criticism that was leveled at him. So I wasn’t hugely surprised that he did not talk to me.

I also know that he has long felt that if he has something he wants to say there are a couple of forums that he will choose to say it in. One is Charlie Rose’s show. Another is the Wall Street Journal. I think that’s mainly because of the Journal’s stature in the business community. And another is the New Yorker. In fact, those were the exact three outlets that, once again, he signed up to talk to.

FG: The fact that Miller wouldn’t talk to you — how much did that impact your reporting?

SM: It didn’t really impact it at all. At the end of the day, it didn’t end up really being a story about her. It was more a story about how everything that had happened impacted the newspaper. By that time, I had been warned by any number of people, including the New York Times reporters who had worked on their story [about Miller], about how incredibly manipulative she can be in terms of trying to dictate who is assigned to write about her and what they’re allowed to write.

I found her behavior to be very surprising from a journalist. … I thought that after her staunch refusal to talk to me and then, after complaining to my editor and trying to get me taken off the story, after both of those things, to then wait for a moment in which she knew the story was completed to pretend that she was now going to cooperate so then she could be painted saying, “Well yeah, I would have answered questions, they just didn’t want my input” — I just found that so duplicitous. [Note: In “Unreliable Sources” Mnookin writes that three weeks after he initially approached Miller for the article she sent him an email asking for a list of questions. According to Mnookin, he sent Miller questions on two occasions, which she never answered.] I found that behavior bizarre coming from someone who has worked as a reporter for so long. But I probably wasn’t as shocked as I would have been had I not been warned by numerous people that that was her modus operandi.

FG: You noted in your story that since Miller got out of jail there’s been a new mantra in the Times’ newsroom: “If Judy is the new Jayson, Arthur is the new Howell.” What do you make of that comparison?

SM: I think that the reason it has gained some currency is because within the Times the specifics of what Jayson [Blair] did were obviously kind of shocking. But the larger concerns about the institution and the direction of the institution didn’t have to do with one reporter. They had to do with Howell Raines. I think that’s where the parallel works to the extent that people at the Times are concerned about the future. The place where it doesn’t work is that I don’t really think that Arthur is in any imminent danger.

Certainly there are plenty of people inside and outside the paper who have criticized Arthur a lot. But he is someone who very clearly is dedicated to doing whatever he can to help the New York Times be the best newspaper in the country. I don’t think there’s a lot of questioning about whether or not his heart is in the right place. He is, from everything I’ve ever heard, an incredibly decent person. People might disagree with his decisions or how he comes off in public. But with Howell there was a sense at the paper that he was a nasty guy.

FG: How did the overall mood of the Times’ newsroom compare when you were reporting this piece versus when you were reporting on the Jayson Blair saga?

SM: I think it’s dramatically different. One really big difference — and I think this gets underplayed a lot in the discussion of Howell and Jayson and that whole period — September 11 was still very close. The newsroom, like all newsrooms in New York, was very intimately affected by that. To some extent, I think there hadn’t yet been a full recovery from September 11. That absence of recovery was amplified by the fact that Howell had the newsroom going 110 percent for that entire 18-month period. So that’s one big difference. Another big difference is that the editorial employees are much happier now than they were under Howell. There are always going to be complaints, and concerns, and qualms, and the feeling that the paper is doing too much of this or not enough of that or whatever. But there’s not this sense of fear and anxiety that was there when Howell was editing the paper.

FG: Have you heard from Miller since the story came out?

SM: No, I haven’t. I read that she is now being paid to give speeches on cruise line tours. So apparently she’s not around.

FG: What kind of feedback have you gotten from people at the Times?

SM: In general, the feedback I’ve gotten has been positive. I think that there is an understandable fatigue at the Times about being the subject of the news. Even people who think I did a good job on the article and people who think I did a good job on the book probably wish that there weren’t any more stories about the paper to write. It’s not something I hope to make a career out of covering.

FG: How many times a day do you check

SM: Actually, I have not checked it since turning in my story. Are there lots of new updates?

FG: No. Not really.

SM: I’m right in the middle of trying to finish up a totally unrelated project. After I finished that story, I kind of checked out of that world.

FG: So if Sulzberger and Miller teamed up to create an Outward Bound program in Sag Harbor, what sort of life lessons could we all hope to learn from them?

SM: I would be much more interested in going on an Outward Bound trip and learning life lessons from Arthur than from Judy. Arthur is someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about some really difficult issues and trying to deal with them the best way he can. Judy, in this case, certainly, seemed to be someone narrowly focused on her own self-interest — even to the point of potentially hurting her colleagues.

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Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.