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The Sins of Judith Miller

By Russ Baker, AlterNet. Posted June 24, 2005.

The New York Times reporter who helped spread the fallacy that Saddam Hussein had WMD has a new beat: discrediting the United Nations. Story Tools
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More stories by Russ Baker

As a media critic, I spend what feels like far too much time trying to persuade people that most reporters are not sloppy, agenda-driven, biased, or lazy. But it seems that whenever I get up on my high horse, back into the news rides Judith Miller.

Miller, a longtime star at The New York Times, has a formidable track record of egregious violations of journalistic standards and best practices, and a habit of sending the public off on what turn out to be wild goose chases. Relying on a small circle of highly interested parties (often anonymous "sources"), she became the leading journalistic purveyor of the fallacy that Saddam Hussein had WMD and that he was tied to Al-Qaeda.

Despite having essentially admitted in a written apology, long ex post facto, that its reporter helped to promote a fallacious rationale for an unnecessary invasion and catastrophically protracted occupation, the Times has not put Miller out to pasture. Instead, it has moved her at her request to another challenge: covering scandal wherever it might rear its head within the United Nations.

This is an ironic assignment, since it was the success of the UN's peaceful approach to controlling WMD in Iraq that underlined the wrongheadedness of the pro-invasion clique that supplied Miller with her faulty "scoops."

Over the past year, she has produced a plethora of stories, chock full of innuendo and allegation but short of independent journalistic verification, suggesting that UN Secretary General Kofi Annan is a bad man and perhaps a corrupt one, and that, by extension, the UN is hardly worth respecting and funding, much less including in geopolitical decision-making.

Most of Miller's sleuthing centers on contracts handed out in connection with the so-called Oil for Food program (which got indispensable staples to the Iraqi people during the embargo). Miller's articles typically take murky evidence and create in readers' minds the sense that there's something deeply wrong in the UN's command structure, when in fact, there may not be. At worst, the malfeasance there pales by comparison to what goes on in Washington day after day.

Since March, Miller has been largely invisible, but last week she returned to the UN dirt beat with a vengeance. On June 15, she came up with goods that at first looked damning. Her article, "Investigators To Review Hint of Annan Role in Iraq Oil Sales," dealt with a memo that seemed to indicate that Secretary General Kofi Annan may have had more contact with a UN contractor for whom his son worked than he had previously admitted. Miller makes it clear that the company in question, Cotecna, has been belatedly forthcoming with information about how it got the UN contracts. But in the penultimate paragraph, she drops this little bomb: "A new internal audit showed that Cotecna had not made the $306,305 in payments that [a UN investigative] panel said might have gone to Kojo Annan [Kofi Annan's son]."

Is she being deliberately opaque or is this just bad writing? What she is actually saying in this throwaway paragraph is that the allegation behind her many previous stories, about a corrupt link between Kojo Annan and the company that got a UN contract, may be unfounded. If the whole thing is a tempest in a teapot, why is that possibility raised only near the end of the article?

Two days after that article appeared, the Times ran another in which Miller shared a byline with the Times' estimable UN bureau chief, Warren Hoge. Their jointly bylined article is headlined "Contractor Now Denies He Talked With Annan on Oil-for-Food Bid." What does that mean? It means that the very source in Miller's earlier piece is now changing his story. It also means that Times editors are sufficiently concerned to include this as an entirely separate article in a paper always short of space for important stories.

This article notes that this is the second time that the source, a one-time business partner of Kojo Annan, has revised his story about what his partner's father might have known about UN contract favoritism. If this source is known to be unreliable, why write an article every time he's quoted saying something harmful to Kofi Annan (and, perhaps not coincidentally, useful to Miller's friends in the neocon community, who are ever eager to discredit the United Nations).

Remarkably, the Miller-Hoge piece actually quotes the Secretary General himself, chastising unspecified "reporters" (read: Miller):

He urged reporters "to resist the temptation to substitute yourself for the Volcker (UN investigative) commission."

Would Miller have put that obvious slap at her into her own article if she weren't forced by her editors?

By Monday, June 20, it became clear that there really was something wrong with Miller's reportage. Of just four corrections in the print edition, one was about her reporting; although, it didn't name her. (The paper would take a big leap forward if it would simply say, "An article on Friday by Judith Miller incorrectly stated....) 

The first correction was of a photo caption that misidentified someone named Toni as Tony. The second correction, presumably dubbed of lesser import than the misapplication of a given name, was Miller's.

Here is Miller's original wording:

This is not the first time that Mr. Wilson has recanted a statement involving the secretary general and his son.

The March report of the Volcker committee records an interview with Mr. Wilson last January in which he recounted a conversation with Kofi Annan in November 1998, when Mr. Annan's son was still a consultant for the company, about a potential conflict of interest in Cotecna's bid.

The Volcker report said that 15 to 20 minutes after the interview, Mr. Wilson called the investigator to change the conversation date to after Kojo Annan had left Cotecna.

Here is the language of the correction: 

An article on Friday about a contractor who said in a 1998 memo that he had met with the United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, shortly before the contractor's company received a contract under the oil-for-food program for Iraq, but who then recanted the report, referred incorrectly to an earlier episode in which the man was reported to have recanted a statement. In March, the panel appointed by the United Nations to investigate the program reported that the man had changed his story of a conversation with Mr. Annan, saying that it was actually in 1996, not 1998. The report did not say the man changed his account to say that the conversation took place after Mr. Annan's son, Kojo, was no longer working for the company.

If this all seems laughably convoluted, that's because of the way the Times corrections department obscures what is really going on. Still, taking together Miller's article and the correction, one can see what she was implying: That the man was deliberately lying to somehow draw attention away from the Annan family. Yet, as the correction says, that is not what he was doing -- he was simply correcting a date.

After so many mistakes, it's becoming apparent to anyone (including perhaps the entire Times newsroom) that Miller is a problem. She's Inspector Clouseau turned loose by the Perle/Cheney gang, bumbling her way through a fragile and dangerous world, leaving reputations shredded, international relations damaged, and facts scattered far and wide. Why top management at an institution that is normally fierce about staff errors continues to tolerate this is a continuing mystery.

Russ Baker is a freelance journalist and essayist. He is currently involved with launching a nonprofit organization dedicated to revitalizing investigative journalism.


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Posted by: james on Jun 24, 2005 4:26 AM    [Report this comment]
It must be obvious that Judith Miller's journalistic role is the same as the leading German journalists during the third Reich: Propaganda. Looks to me that she takes her marching orders from AIPAC, the Likud and Karl Rove.

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Posted by: jingoist on Jun 24, 2005 4:29 AM    [Report this comment]
Good article! Until now, I thought that the last real American had long since quit the New York Times. Now that I know about Judith Miller, the NYT's has been elevated to "worthy of a glance." She was definately on to something though. The UN is the world's most corrupt organization. Certain high ranking members were deeply in bed with Iraq's bloodthirsty dictator (friend of the left) Saddam Hussein. The oil for food scandal may end up being the biggest scandal in history. Saddam was definately cooperating with terrorists, probably even al Qaeda. Ayman al-Zawahiri was in Iraq under a pseudonym in Sept. 1999 to participate in the ninth popular Islamic Conferance. Former Iraqi premier Iyad Allawi revealed this to the pan Arab daily al-Hayat. This info. was discovered by the Iraqi secret service and was found in the archives of the Saddam Hussein regime. They "think" Zarqawi may have been there too. Allawi said,"Al-Zawahiri was summoned by Izza Ibrahim Al-Douri-then deputy head of the council of the leadership of the revolution-to take part in the congress, along with some 150 other Islamic figures from 50 Muslim countries." Do you think it's even remotely possible that Zawahiri was there without Saddam's OK? Don't you think that he talked to some of Saddam's guys? The world is a better place without the homicidal, mass raping, murdering tyrant that was protected by the American left and the world left at the United Nations. Iraq will soon be a stable representative democracy governed by the rule of law. They are well on their way. Brave Iraqis already risked their lives en mass to vote. Unlike the American Democratic party, they didn't let dead people vote. This is the only functioning Democracy in the Arab world! All of this was done DESPITE the American and world left. There's YOUR legacy. Viva freedom!!!! JINGOIST

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» sorry Posted by: brasilaron
» RE: sorry Posted by: Astroboy
» RE: JINGOIST Posted by: ddenver
» RE: JINGOIST Posted by: Pepper
» RE: JINGOIST Posted by: helenwheels
» RE: JINGOIST Posted by: Snazz
» RE: JINGOIST Posted by: kk33deg
» RE: JINGOIST Posted by: Astroboy
» RE: JINGOIST Posted by: Astroboy
» RE: JINGOIST Posted by: diamondvajra
Not surprised
Posted by: kgs1947 on Jun 24, 2005 6:46 AM    [Report this comment]
I'm not surprised at this reporter. The public media, owned and operated by conglomerates, continues to sell the public short on journalistic investigations. The public media, print and audio, are in a sad state of affairs. No guts, no brains, no concrete writing! Lots of bs and games being offered as substance. What a disappointment in this current generation of reporters!

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» RE: Not surprised Posted by: Pepper
Paid to write that bad
Posted by: Meremark on Jun 24, 2005 7:50 AM    [Report this comment]
The Fright House pays journalists for print propaganda. Armstrong Williams equals Judith Miller. Same same. Thomas Friedman. Same same.

Or do you think Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher were the best wordmongers / most influential toadies Bush could buy? Hell no. This Evil Office has a hundred if it has one corrupted journalist. The senate race in South Dakota even had PAID blogger propagandists hired in the lie campaign against Tom Daschle. (And even now, some of the premier blogs on general topics exhibit regular 'commenters' giving all propaganda, no perception. You can tell it when you read it. If you remember that it is there.)

So Judith Miller's / T. Friedman's / Who's Next's bank statement should add up to what the Times pays her, right? and not a million dollars more. See their money on the side before you see what they write.

Paid shill equals pariah. Guilty until financial statement proves innocent.

Scott McClellan is not complaining about what the paid traitors in journalism write. That should tell you something.

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» RE: Paid to write that bad Posted by: sarah meyer
» RE: Paid to write that bad Posted by: VAGreen
it's all about ME. (always)
Posted by: sarah on Jun 24, 2005 9:39 AM    [Report this comment]
Thank you for this insightful "insider" glimpse into the world of wrod mongering. :) People don't realize the power of words once they've hit the paper, and the discussion of the edited changes (expections of quality or comparative lack, thereof, for some and not other) was informative to me as a reader.

In contrast, as a person who writes, I felt a little nervous about the quality of my own writing with all this explicative stuff being tossed about. uhm. I write poetry and am very meticulous, described as a "perfectionist on even the syllable level" by my peers and mentors. I am the same with prose, (academic, editorial, and entertainment based), and i have always admired journalists for their capacity to report clearly at the drop of a hat. HOWEVER, let me qualify and excuse myself with the quality of my internet posts. uhm. I like to drink lots of coffee and then "kamakaze" the boards that i frequent. Sometimes things emerge garbled (and self-centered) but i think my lil hobby here is good practice. Unconstrained by my usual pressure to write perfectly, i speak my mind and generate unusual or atypical content while interacting with those who may or may not agree with whatever perspective i have conjured up under the influence of3 double mocha javas with extra whipped cream. It's all a pary for me, and i feel deeply deeply ashamed (until the next post.) That's all. it's about me, now. and i won't apologize.. no, not me. (re Alternet: the word count limit and subsequent edits i make with jittery fingers are not helpful... but i know what i mean to say. and I now see the word limit as an exercise to better my editing skills.) ok, i'll apologize a little. Maybe only 2 mocha javas today.

:) just kidding. sort of.

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» me, the snooty artiste. Posted by: sarah
Shes a well paid Predator Deceptor
Posted by: pjrsullivan on Jun 24, 2005 1:07 PM    [Report this comment]
Spouting the Cannibal cults positions.

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Hey Jingoist
Posted by: sedrik39 on Jun 24, 2005 2:03 PM    [Report this comment]
Shut up. Just plain shut up.

The UN may not get everything right all of the time, but at least they are trying. The White House is trying to get everything wrong all of the time, and manages to screw up and get something half-way right at least once in a while (although it's usually because of a public opinion backlash).

Guess what? Washington has finally owned up to torturing prisoners at Gitmo, in Iraq, and in Afghanistan (see Rights & Liberties log). Hate to say I told you so, even as the Bush administration vehemently denied it. Of course, the document won't become official until MAY 2006 (!!!), but that will only serve to cause their ratings to plummet just in time for the mid-term elections.

You know, it's people like you who allow Rove to make his absurd comments about liberals wanting to "offer therapy and undestanding for our attackers." By the way, the White House is standing by their man, who sucks @$$. But guess what? Preparing for war made us attack a country on false pretenses and is currently causing dozens of American soldiers and over a thousand Iraqis to be killed in the past two months. You blindly hold to your false beliefs and support a pack of poisonous liars, while they seek to divide America and distract people from the scandal of the Downing Street memos. Oh yeah, and O'Reilly says that the people at Air America need to be arrested for treason. Are you getting their talking points as well?

I live in Alaska, and yesterday I was driving along when I saw a tow truck. It was covered by a bunch of patriotic designs and lettering, saying things like "Support Our Troops." Then my jaw hit the floor when I saw, in this same lettering, the following: "Visualize No Liberals." That someone would write something so asinine on their vehicle is absurd to begin with, but that a company put that on the side of their vehicle is proof that Bush is a divider, not a uniter.

So go ahead, be a borrow-and-spend, war-mongering, spin-absorbing conservative if you want to be. Your type will be the death of us all.

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Extra! Extra! The New York Times is pure, unadulterated crap
Posted by: rococohobo on Jun 24, 2005 3:05 PM    [Report this comment]
I used to live in a co-op full of very smart, progressive people, who for some reason had gotten a subscription to this newspaper. I read it occasionally, expecting it to be the paragon of journalism that it is made out to be. I grew increasingly disgusted, until the lead-up to the Iraq war, when I gave up on it altogether. After the glorious liberation, I took a peek, out of morbid curiosity, and found some piece where the "reporter" "quoted" an anonymous (naturally) Iraqi, on what America meant to him. He replied something like, "Democracy! Whiskey! Sexy, sexy!" Yes, highly plausible.

Since then, I've relied on AlterNet articles like this to keep me up-to-date on the most significantly offensive crap being perpetrated by the NYT. The Great Friedman's recent tribute to the Indian techies who are chomping at the bit to work 35-hour days was especially nauseating. From the looks of his writing, I would be shocked if he works 35 hours in a whole month.

Of course, any attempt the New York Times makes to cover a third-world country collapses under the weight of neoliberal propaganda heaped on to it. "Will President So-and-So bravely push forward these painful but necessary free-market reforms, or will he succumb to the foolish demands of the nation's workers... etc."

If you are one of those people that still nurses a New York Times habit, that likes the feeling of sitting down to read a big, thick newspaper, please do yourself a favor and switch to the L.A. Times. The L.A. Times is not perfect, it is still mainstream media, but it really is the only major media outlet in this country that makes any attempt to produce serious journalism anymore. It is also big and thick, but that bulk is full of well-researched, reasonably balanced, and intelligently written reportage. One could contrast its criticism of GM, which it stood by even when threatened with an advertising boycott, with, well, with practically any NYT piece relating to the business world. (A good example, among many, might be AlterNet's Feb. 23 article on their coverage of community internet: mediaculture/21328/)

The L.A. Times doesn't call everyone "Mr.", nor does it have the monolithic reputation of its East Coast counterpart, but it is an infinitely better publication, one that I believe deserves support and appreciation for what it is trying, by and large to do.

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