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It's Not Just Judy

Russ Baker

November 14, 2005

Investigative reporter and essayist Russ Baker is a longtime contributor to He is the founder of the Real News Project, a new organization dedicated to producing groundbreaking investigative journalism. He can be reached at

The Wicked Witch of the Eastern Media Establishment is gone! Long live The New York Times!

Well, hooray, I suppose. Though if that refrain is the final word on the Judith Miller saga, we’re in deeper trouble than I thought. To be sure, I’ve been as outspoken as anyone about the "Miller problem"—her credulous, duplicitous hyping of non-existent WMDs;  her enthusiastic prejudging and exaggeration of complicated "oil-for-food" allegations involving Kofi Annan and the United Nations. But now that she has finally "resigned," let it be said that getting rid of Judy Miller is only the beginning of the reforms necessary at The New York Times and in journalism generally.

For one thing, the Times’ leadership has still not come clean about the process and values that allowed someone so compromised and controversial even within her own newsroom to continue to operate with impunity. The paper’s position belatedly shifted from there being no problem at all with its Iraq coverage to there having been a lamentable but understandable industry-wide screw-up caused by faulty sources, to, finally, there being a Miller problem—when in fact it is about something bigger: the failings of theTimes itself, and of all journalism in the age of Bush.

Miller was not some rogue operator. She was a star at America’s most prestigious news organization. Whatever her journalism was about, she certainly never understood the journalistic dictum "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted." She loved all things gilded and powerful, and thrilled at the company of the connected. She was unique in the Times newsroom because, like Sally Field at the Academy Awards so many years ago, she could say of people like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld: “They like me! They really like me!”

For good reason, leading establishment figures don’t usually like, trust or count on journalists—nor should they. They’re entitled to a hearing, but nothing more. The sausage-making process behind the power facades is scarcely pleasant, and it’s our job to tell it the way it is, not to bestow additional gravitas and authority where it is ill-deserved. 

For years, Miller’s work largely involved talking regularly with the likes of Cheney and Scooter Libby—and calling the opposing side for comments, though rarely taking informed outsider critiques seriously. That’s not doing the spade work of an honorable trade. Indeed, treating reporters who work the government side of the road as necessary ‘balancers’ grievously negates the reality of today’s America.

Too many journalistic institutions are living in an idyllic past. The uniquely American notion of objective journalism, of reporting both perspectives and letting readers decide for themselves, while admirable, is increasingly meaningless. Especially when one’s job is to referee between a six-headed, hundred-tongued hydra and the tactical equivalent of Bambi.  

Miller liked to say that the issue wasn’t whether or not she got the story wrong, but that the sources were wrong, and the Times leadership took up this chant as well. Sorry, folks. The essence of good journalism is not reporting what people say, but figuring out who is telling the truth. Miller had it all precisely….wrong.  In her world, Ahmad Chalabi was an informed source, Kofi Annan, a scoundrel.

As we all know by now, the Bush administration is unsurpassed in its willingness to distort, mislead, stall, dissemble and fabricate. And that puts journalism in a bind: If your job is to report on government but the government itself cannot be trusted, what do you do?

When we think of other countries in difficult straits, the journalists we invoke and honor are not those who maintain a good relationship with tainted regimes, who serve as mouthpieces, who make them sound reasonable. It was not the news outlets that gave a platform to Pinochet and Brezhnev and Saddam Hussein that we admire. It was those who resisted, who spoke the truth to power and to the public, no matter the cost. Those who went to jail in such circumstances did not do so for self-serving or publicity purposes or to protect potentates, and the imprisoned often were not just reporters but their editors and publishers as well. At the Times , Judy Miller went to jail to protect the real story of her dealings with Scooter Libby on WMDs, while her publisher and longtime close friend, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., trumpeted her as a hero.

That The New York Times is still the best paper out there is not surprising, since it has the resources and allure to attract the most accomplished, most energetic, most experienced reporters. Nevertheless, in the face of the staggering opportunities for muckraking afforded by the Bush administration, the Times has been a major disappointment. And when others stumbled while trying to get at difficult truths about Bush, as CBS' "60 Minutes II" did when probing the president’s military record, the Times was only too glad to pile on with the critics, rather than focus on advancing public understanding of the underlying issue: the integrity and character of our war-mongering leader.   

Now, with Miller gone, the paper has a chance to show that taking brave risks for the truth, not accommodating power, is the only honorable course for journalists who want to exemplify the best of their profession. 



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