On April 21, New York Times reporter Judith Miller broke what appeared to be one the most important stories since the war in Iraq began. In a piece that ran on the paper’s front page, Ms. Miller reported that a scientist in Saddam Hussein’s chemical-weapons program, in speaking to U.S military investigators, had claimed that Iraq had destroyed illicit weapons in the days leading up the war.
The revelation was huge news because if the scientist’s claims were true, they supported President Bush’s stated rationale for the war: that Iraq was a menace to world peace because it was secretly harboring chemical and biological weapons.
But the deal Ms. Miller made to get her piece was wildly peculiar, and it provoked concern not only among the usual journalism ethics hand-wringers, but also among her colleagues at The Times .
In her story, Ms. Miller disclosed that in the course of reporting her piece, she agreed to several conditions set forth by the group interviewing the scientist-the Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha (M.E.T. Alpha), the U.S. military unit in charge of finding evidence of weapons of mass destruction.
“Under the terms of her accreditation to report on the activities of MET Alpha, this reporter was not permitted to interview the scientist or visit his home,” Ms. Miller wrote. “Nor was she permitted to write about the discovery of the scientist for three days, and the copy was then submitted for a check by military officials.”
That Ms. Miller would report on the closed-door revelations of an individual under government questioning wasn’t earth-shattering or unprecedented-such revelations are routinely reported in newspapers, usually as leaks from officials involved in an investigation
But observers at The Times and elsewhere were dismayed by the last part of Ms. Miller’s deal-that the newspaper would submit its copy to military brass for approval. The military officials had even dictated a change to the copy, that The Times agreed to make.
“Those officials asked that details of what chemicals were uncovered be deleted,” Ms. Miller wrote. “They said they feared that such information could jeopardize the scientist’s safety by identifying the part of the weapons program where he worked.”
According to Times sources, the piece had caused an uproar among some reporters on 43rd Street. Several sources said there had been intense discussions in the newsroom about the deal Ms. Miller made and the paper’s decision to run the piece under such conditions. One source inside The Times called it a “wacky-assed piece,” adding that there were “real questions about it and why it was on page 1.”
Ultimately, Ms. Miller’s piece raised more questions than it answered. Not surprisingly, The Washington Post was dismissive of her findings on April 22. “Without further details of the find, experts said, its significance cannot be assessed,” The Post ‘s Barton Gellman wrote.
Ms. Miller, of course, was no inexperienced staffer. She is a Times veteran, one of the paper’s true stars, whose work on the subject of chemical weapons-including her book with William Broad and Stephen Engelberg, Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War -has been exhaustive and much admired.
Given her track record and the extraordinary circumstances of the story, Ms. Miller deserved the benefit of the doubt, said Alex S. Jones, co-author of The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times . “She has a vested interest in not only The New York Times getting the story but also a vested interest in being right,” he said. “This is a person who has more experience reporting on chemical weapons than anyone else.”
But others were not as convinced. While giving props to Ms. Miller’s scoop, Slate press critic Jack Shafer wrote on April 21 that it is “worth asking if she and the Times secured it at a price too dear. If the paper of record has changed the rules of sourcing to the advantage of the U.S. military and the Bush administration, it ought to inform its readers of those changes, preferably in a meaty ‘Editor’s Note’ on Page Two.”
New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen called Ms. Miller’s piece the kind where “press criticism is important.”
“It’s the kind of story used to label colonial newspapers: it’s important if true,” Mr. Rosen said. “That’s how I feel about this story. It’s important if true.”
His colleague at N.Y.U., Rob Boynton, said he was “surprised” to see the story not sourced closer to the actual subject.
“This is the rationale behind the war,” Mr. Boynton said. “There’s something dismaying about saying, ‘I saw this person who was said to be an Iraqi scientist.’ Hell, that person might be the janitor for all we know.”
But Mr. Jones said he felt both Ms. Miller and The Times aptly handled the story. He pointed to its location below the fold as a signal that this wasn’t the smoking gun but “an important development” in an ongoing story.
“I think she was very, very precise in the explanation of the limitations that she was reporting under, which was very helpful as a reader,” Mr. Jones said.
Ms. Miller did not return an e-mail request seeking an interview. Toby Usnik, a spokesperson for The Times, said that Ms. Miller, Times executive editor Howell Raines, managing editor Gerald Boyd and foreign editor Roger Cohen were all unavailable for comment.
But Mr. Usnik defended Ms. Miller’s piece. Calling Ms. Miller’s story “a splendid piece of reporting,” Mr. Usnik acknowledged it was not the “whole story-but admirably candid about its limitations, and a fine basis for further reporting, which of course we will do.”
As for the deal that was cut, Mr. Usnik said The Times placed the military’s ground rules for the piece “in the same category as our use-and other papers’ use-of embedded assignments in general.”
Mr. Usnik also said that the paper had not regularly submitted copy for review during the war, though he added: “We did periodically remind readers that the ground rules for ’embedded’ correspondents ruled out disclosure of specific locations and planned military actions.”
“Our customary practice is to write about the review process if a story was altered by it,” Mr. Usnik continued. “The Miller story was.”
In December 2002, shortly after The New York Times announced its plans to take full control of the International Herald Tribune from its former partner, The Washington Post , The Times appointed Walter Wells as managing editor. Mr. Wells, who served as the Herald Tribune ‘s managing editor before stepping down in 2001, would head the paper in lieu of departing executive editor David Ignatius, who returned to The Washington Post as an op-ed columnist.
Mr. Wells, reporting directly to Times executive editor Howell Raines, was only meant to be a stop gap, until a permanent leader could be found. However, while names have floated around about possible choices (former Paris bureau chief and current education editor Suzanne Daley, foreign editor Roger Cohen), there appears to be no permanent appointment forthcoming.
A Times spokesperson declined to comment on if there was a timetable for naming a permanent executive editor, and Mr. Wells declined to comment on his future with the paper. However, he said he was pleased with the relationship between the Herald Tribune and its parent company across the Atlantic.
“We edit the paper in Paris,” Mr. Wells said. “To this point, we’ve never been second-guessed on the news and the support I get is total. What we hear from The Times is to think of your readers. Those readers are in Europe and Asia. Not on 43rd Street.”
Mr. Wells said since the management change, the Herald Tribune has become “a lot more competitive.”
“There used to be a comical expression in the newsroom,” Mr. Wells said. “‘If it happened yesterday, it’s news to us.’ That’s not the case anymore.”
After a brief respite and some post-traumatic stress counseling in the States, Newsday correspondent Matthew McAllester has left for Iraq to resume reporting for the paper. While he’s there, he’ll be looking for the people who imprisoned him. Mr. McAllester’s search will be part of a book he plans to write for HarperCollins due out in spring 2004.
Mr. McAllester, along with four other journalists, was taken from the Palestine Hotel in the early morning hours of March 24. Held on the suspicion of being American spies, the five were held in secret before they were released on April 1.
HarperCollins executive editor David Hirshey said he asked Mr. McAllester, who signed a six-figure deal for the book, tentatively called Blinded by the Sunlight , to look for his former captors in order to explain why he and the other three journalists were targeted. The book would, Mr. Hirshey said, incorporate Mr. McAllester’s prison experience but would also shoot for something larger.
“It’s a dual narrative,” Mr. Hirshey explained. “It’s the personal nightmare of being incarcerated in the worst prison in Iraq, and the story of how Iraq was in a virtual prison for 24 years and what it’s like now as the country deals with the confusing light of freedom.”
Wanted: Young person ready to work for important, phonebook-heavy fashion magazine, with no impulse to turn his/her experience into a roman à clef .
On Thursday, April 17, Vogue ‘s Aimee Cho went looking-via mass e-mail-for a new assistant to the magazine’s editor in chief, Anna Wintour. Ms. Cho explained it was a “tough job” that required “very serious” applicants. Ms. Cho had an additional requirement: The magazine, she said, was looking for people “who have not read The Devil Wears Prada. “
That, of course, was the title of the much hyped if critically pounded novel by Lauren Weisberger, Ms. Wintour’s onetime assistant, about the trials of, um, a young assistant toiling beneath, er, the editor of a fashion magazine.
Ms. Cho sad in her e-mail that she was “just kidding.”
While Ms. Cho described long hours and “not great” compensation, she listed real perks. Free transportation to and from work. Paid lunches. And, of course, the “Manolo Blahnik sample sales.”
When reached by Off the Record, Ms. Cho declined to comment. A Vogue spokesperson said Ms. Wintour was unavailable for comment.
Oh, Canada …. Native Canadian and New York Post reporter Brad Hunter is leaving the paper to head an as-yet-unnamed British news agency’s Toronto office that will work in conjunction with the Los Angeles–based Splash News and Picture Agency.
“I’m going to be coordinating celebrity coverage in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and the American Midwest,” Mr. Hunter said.
When asked if there were any celebrities in Canada that didn’t cross the blue line, Mr. Hunter snapped to defend his native land. He pointed to the country’s plethora of shooting locations used by the motion picture industry. Remember, Chicago and Blues Brothers 2000 were shot in Toronto!
“Right now, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez are in Montreal,” Mr. Hunter said.