Accuracy in Media

In peeling through the layers of the Valerie Plame-CIA leak case, one of the more fascinating stories is the infighting at the New York Times, and the hypocrisy and selective outrage that have been exposed in the process. The Times is now proclaiming to the rooftops that reporter Judith Miller will be held accountable?and probably banished from the paper?for getting too close to a conservative Republican administration. By the same token, there is a helpful lesson here for Bush officials: talk to the Times at your own risk.

When Miller spent 85 days in jail for refusing to identify the source who had told her the identity of CIA employee Valerie Plame, she was hailed by the Times and others in the mainstream media as a first-amendment martyr, protecting the principle of a journalist’s right to protect sources. But when she was finally released from jail, supposedly because she had finally received a genuine release from confidentiality by her source, vice-presidential chief of staff Lewis “Scooter” Libby, she came under harsh attack by her own colleagues.

It’s true that part of the attack was based on Miller’s actions after getting out of jail. She apparently refused to cooperate with Times reporters on what she knew and when she knew it, in time to meet their deadlines. And her first person account of her grand jury testimony and series of meetings and contacts, left doubt in people’s minds about what really occurred. For instance, she claimed that she really couldn’t remember such basic facts as who first told her the name of Valerie Plame.

In a stunning email, from Times executive editor Bill Keller to the Times employees, he said he wished he had more carefully interviewed Miller, and that he “missed what should have been significant alarm bells.” He said he might have been more willing to deal with the Special Prosecutor Fitzgerald “if I had known the details of Judy’s entanglement” with Libby.

This provided an occasion for her Times critics to resurrect her previous reporting leading up to the start of the war in Iraq in 2003. “Judy’s stories about WMD,” wrote the Times’ Maureen Dowd, “fit too closely with the White House’s case for war.” That was the bottom line of the anger and venom, some of it very personal, aimed at Miller by the likes of Dowd and Frank Rich. She was ostracized for her reported willingness to use information from the Bush Administration and associated figures such as Ahmad Chalabi of Iraq. Even Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said that the paper had been far too slow correcting the reports that indicated Saddam Hussein had WMD, but that the blame wasn’t entirely Miller’s. “It was an institutional failure,” said Sulzberger.

The “failure,” such as it was, was in relying on official sources in the Bush Administration and U.S. intelligence agencies like the CIA. When stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction were not found in Iraq after the invasion, commentators came to the conclusion that they were never there, and that the reporting was, therefore, erroneous. That’s not necessarily the case. The burden was on Saddam to prove the weapons were gone; he never did so. They could have been transferred out of the country.

It’s easy to say, in hindsight, that it was wrong for Miller and others to rely on official sources. But what was the alternative? The main alternative was to rely on the Saddam Hussein regime and its official sources for information about the WMD. Was Baghdad Bob a reliable source? Should he have been quoted by the Times, in order to rebut the Bush Administration sources?

The problem is the same for Democrats and others who contend that this war was dishonestly sold to the American public by the Bush Administration, with the help of a submissive press that was afraid to ask the tough questions. They used the same sources available to Miller. What’s more, the intelligence agencies of allied countries all agreed that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a threat because of its possession and development of WMD. So the perceived intelligence failure was not unique to the Bush Administration.

Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has written a powerful column for the Washington Post that laid out the problem the Times now faces when it attempts to single out Miller for special scrutiny. The fact is that it wasn’t just Judith Miller at the Times who reported that the Iraqi threat was real.

Just a couple examples from Kagan of Times articles from the late 1990’s make the point: “Philip Shenon reported official concerns that Iraq would be ‘capable within months—and possibly just weeks or days—of threatening its neighbors with an arsenal of chemical, biological and even nuclear weapons.’ He reported that Iraq was thought to be ‘still hiding tons of nerve gas’ and was ‘seeking to obtain uranium from a rogue nation or terrorist groups to complete as many as four nuclear warheads.’ Tim Weiner and Steven Erlanger reported that Hussein was closer than ever ‘to what he wants most: keeping a secret cache of biological and chemical weapons.’”

And Times editorials were equally clear when they warned the Clinton administration of the dangers of negotiating with Iraq. They cautioned against letting “diplomacy drift into dangerous delay. Even a few more weeks free of inspections might allow Mr. Hussein to revive construction of a biological, chemical or nuclear weapon.” They wrote that it was “hard to negotiate with a tyrant who has no intention of honoring his commitments and who sees nuclear, chemical and biological weapons as his country’s salvation.”

But following Miller’s release from jail, Times columnist Frank Rich went after the Bush Administration and, by extension, Miller. He said the White House “put out a lot of propaganda about WMD, they cherry picked evidence, they ignored signs, sometimes from other government agencies that disputed the evidence for going to war, and they sold it very very well to the public and Congress, often thru the press. And there were very few journalistic institutions that challenged it before we discovered the cupboard was bare.”

By the press, he clearly meant to include his own paper, the Times, and Miller.

But since Miller was not alone, even at the Times, in writing such stories, what explains this selective vehemence? The conclusion has to be that Miller is taking a hit because one of her sources has now turned out to be a high-ranking member of the Bush Administration. Official sources are fine when they are being used to undermine the Bush Administration. But when they support the Bush Administration or come from within that administration, that’s something else entirely. Clearly, Miller is being denounced because she dared to talk to Lewis Libby and other Bush officials not only about WMD but about the CIA leak case. This was just too much for the extreme liberals at the Times to take.

The irony, of course, is that Miller didn’t write a story about what Libby told her about the Joseph Wilson/Valerie Plame affair. But it doesn’t matter. What matters, for Frank Rich and his ilk, is that Miller was too close to “Scooter” and that deserves ostracism and even banishment from the paper. The result will be that the Times, already a very liberal paper, will move even further to the left. Bush officials would be well-advised to take this fact into account.

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