When journalists become too deeply invested in a specific story or storyline, they run the risk of ignoring their training and instincts. Let’s call Sabrina Rubin Erdely–who shopped for a spectacular rape to illustrate the problem of campus sexual assault for Rolling Stone–Exhibit A.
Former New York Times investigative reporter (and now Fox News commentator) Judith Miller insists that she did not fall into a similar trap, even though some of her 2002-03 Times stories strongly suggesting that Saddam Hussein possessed “WMDs” (weapons of mass destruction) proved wildly inaccurate.
After spending nearly three months in prison to safeguard a source’s identity, the 28-year Times veteran and Pulitzer Prize winner was pushed out of the paper in 2005, her reputation in tatters. In The Story: A Reporter’s Journey, Miller defends her integrity and her work, errors notwithstanding. “I had not parroted the administration’s line,” she writes. “I had struggled to verify every published tip … . I had never lacked skepticism. Nor had I twisted or ignored facts to achieve a political outcome.”
Displaying the “sharp elbows” that she says alienated some of her colleagues, she also attacks the Times editors and the publisher who first sidelined and undermined her, then forced her to leave the job she loved.
Miller’s new book touches cursorily on her troubled family of origin, youthful romantic escapades, and marriage to editor and publisher Jason Epstein. But The Story turns out to be less personal than we might wish, less a memoir than an apologia and an assault. It nevertheless offers sympathetic glimpses of Miller’s vulnerability and her courage–not just in braving war zones, but in standing up to military brass and editors alike.
When Times editors Bill Keller and Jill Abramson showed her a prospective editor’s note that focused on problems with her WMD stories, Miller threatened to go public with her objections. That must have required steely nerves. Among other issues, she told her bosses that the original note overstated her “ostensible dependence” on Iraqi defector Ahmad Chalabi, overlooked her more skeptical intelligence stories, and ignored egregiously inaccurate stories by her colleagues. The 2004 institutional mea culpa was duly abridged and toned down. “It had taken me almost five hours to persuade Keller and Abramson that their original version of the note was wrong,” Miller writes.
This is illuminating and gossipy stuff, showing no one involved in an entirely favorable light. Here first-person writing–not Miller’s forte, as she underlined in a recent appearance at the Free Library of Philadelphia–melds with her true obsession: reconsideration of the intricacies of reporting and intelligence gathering on terrorism and WMDs.
Not surprisingly, given the continuing association between Miller’s too-credulous articles and the US involvement in Iraq, her book has garnered dismissive reviews. Writing in The New York Times, Terry McDermott called it “sad and flawed.” Erik Wemple, The Washington Post’s media critic, termed it “desperate and depressing,” while acknowledging that his own paper’s editorials also had been insufficiently critical of WMD intelligence reports.
With an average of twenty stories filed each day, I rarely had time to be deft or subtle.
In fact, leaving ideology and the debacle of Iraq aside, The Story turns out to be alternately turgid and fascinating, if not in equal measure.
Miller self-deprecatingly confesses to having been hired in 1977 to the Times’ Washington bureau with modest qualifications–“in the scramble for gender correctness”–after a group of women at the Times filed a federal class-action sex discrimination suit against the paper in 1974. (It was settled out of court in 1978, with a small financial payout and new goals for promoting women.)
As Cairo bureau chief, beginning in 1983, Miller fell in love with reporting on the Middle East, hobnobbing with heads of state such as Jordan’s King Hussein. “Once,” she writes, “during a break at an Arab summit, he tried, but failed, to teach me to water-ski–harder than making peace between Arabs and Jews, he joked.” After risking her safety to little effect, she concluded that “a war correspondent’s life was not for me” (though she did later embed with a secret army unit charged with finding WMDs in Iraq).
An editing post in the Times’ Washington bureau seems to have been an even worse fit. “Confronting reporters’ stories understandably generated resentment,” she writes. “With an average of twenty stories filed each day, I rarely had time to be deft or subtle.”
Pursuing her own stories on germ warfare (leading to a co-authored book, Germs, and a documentary) and then, pre-9/11, on Al Qaeda (resulting in a shared Pulitzer for explanatory journalism) made Miller a star.
But when it came to Saddam Hussein’s alleged development and stockpiling of new WMDs, sources she had long relied on gave her bad information, Miller says. Others who doubted the existence of such weapons, such as counterterrorism guru Richard Clarke, remained silent. At the Free Library, Miller noted provocatively that some of her intelligence sources, with their mixed track record, were continuing to advise the Obama administration on Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
The Story also delves into the imbroglio over the public exposure of CIA agent Valerie Plame and Miller’s related struggle over whether to testify about a source. She ended up serving 85 days in prison on contempt of court charges. Against the wishes of the Times, she writes, her personal attorney eventually negotiated a waiver from vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby that allowed her to describe their interaction. She could probably have had that waiver all along, she writes. Complicating the case further is her belief that some of her testimony–which helped convict Libby on perjury and obstruction of justice charges–may have been erroneous.
More interesting than the ponderous parsing of her testimony is Miller’s insider view of the Times’ dysfunctional culture, with its turf battles, strong egos, and “increasingly poisonous politics.” After returning from Iraq, she writes, “I had found the war within the Times more emotionally taxing than my embed in a war zone.”
Though she is late to the defense, she says she preferred the controversial tenure of Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd–both forced to resign in the aftermath of the Jayson Blair scandal–to that of their successors, Keller and Abramson. And her depiction of her onetime friend, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., as fearful and disloyal, is scathing. “I will never abandon you again,” he promises, according to her account. Then he does.
As for Miller’s own status as a scapegoat and “lightning rod,” she was, after all, “a pushy, high-profile reporter at the nation’s highest-profile newspaper,” whose mistakes were magnified by Web-spread attacks that were “relentless, sexist, and ugly.” That much, at least, she seems to have gotten right.Julia M. Klein is a longtime CJR contributor and a contributing book critic for The Forward. She is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.