Saturday, October 22, 2005

Miss Run Amok raking

If the New York Times offered a money-back guarantee to readers bewitched, bothered and bewildered by its reporting, I would be applying for a refund right now in light of the Judith Miller imbroglio.

After a year of sturm und drang featuring 85 days in the federal slammer, the NYT ace who once styled herself as Miss Run Amok suddenly reversed course and gave a federal grand jury the name of a confidential source who said he never wanted to be protected.

As readers of the New York Times were among the very last to know, Judy’s source was Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the chief of staff for VP Dick Cheney. Scooter either did or did not give Judy the name of a once-covert CIA agent married to former Ambassador Joseph P. Wilson IV, the man who wrote an article debunking one of the of primary administration justifications for the Iraq war.

The operative theory at the moment is that Mrs. Wilson was outed by Scooter and/or Karl Rove, the chief bully behind the White House bully pulpit, to retaliate for her husband’s article. Scooter and Karl are spending a suspenseful weekend wondering if they are about to be indicted for perjury, obstruction or some other federal offense.

Judy’s seemingly selfless sacrifice for her high principles put most of the media on high alert and guys like me into high dudgeon.

Now, NYT columnist Maureen Dowd, one of Judy’s highest-profile colleagues, is wondering whether Judy’s midsummer nightmare was little more than a “career- rehabilitation project” orchestrated by an “operatic” colleague who once big-footed her out of the official New York Times chair at a White House press briefing.

In an unusually harsh public denunciation, Mo mows down Judy by urging the Times to prevent her colleague from rejoining its staff when she completes the leave she is taking to recover from her ordeal. If Judy comes back, warns Mo, “the institution most in danger would be the newspaper in your hands.”

Mo catalogues the shenanigans that characterized Judy’s career prior to the affair that landed her in jail, including authoring several credulous, though utterly inaccurate, stories about the danger of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. “Sorely in need of a tight editorial leash, she was kept on no leash at all,” says up Mo. “And that has hurt this paper and its trust with readers.”

Immediately after Judy cut the deal with the federal prosecutor that enabled her to finally give investigators (but not her readers) the scoop on Scooter, the Times promised a full and forthright exposition of the matter. The result, produced after an unseemly long interlude in the world of daily journalism, was an incomprehensible story last Sunday that failed to reveal what its reporter knew, what its editors knew, when they knew it, what they decided to publish and, significantly, what they decided not to print.

In a follow-on effort to presumably stay a step ahead of the blistering Dowd column, NYT editor Bill Keller yesterday sent an email to the staff to take a belated “first cut” at “what I should have done differently in handling our reporter's entanglement in the White House leak investigation.”

Apart from second guessing his own lack of second guessing on Judy’s reporting on WMDs and the leak, Bill got only so far as quoting a staff member, who suggested that the paper in the future would be well advised before “going into a battle” to know “exactly what the situation is, what we're fighting for, the degree to which the facts might counsel compromise or not, and the degree to which our collective credibility should be put on the line."

There’s a lot more at stake here than either the credibility of the New York Times or where Judy Miller gets her next paycheck. And it is this:

Although every state but Wyoming provides some legal protection to reporters shielding their confidential sources, there is no such law at the federal level (which is why Judy landed in the joint). With the NYT looking foolish and obstreperous for defending a reporter denounced by her own colleagues, there won’t be much forward movement in establishing a federal shield law. Beyond being a likely setback for a federal shield law, this could trigger open season on shield laws at the state level.

As a direct result of the chilling showdown between the Judy and the feds, editors and publishers clamped down on the use of anonymous sources throughout the industry. They were appropriately concerned about being drawn into lengthy and costly confrontations with prosecutors trying to learn the identity of the confidential sources that historically have provided valuable information for vital stories that otherwise wouldn’t see the light of day.

The scenario also served as a warning to would-be whistleblowers, doubtless causing many to think long and hard about dropping dime on public-safety hazards, political corruption and other stories the public has a need and a right to know.

With the Miller case looking increasingly like a fire drill instead of the real thing, editors and publishers can add to their worries not only the potential cost and trouble of litigation involved in protecting confidential informants, but also the fear of looking as goofy in the future as the New York Times does today.

None of this is going to make the press more intrepid.