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.