Off the Record

Habits of mind can be tough to break. Judith Miller, for instance, can still cling to an assertion in the face of contrary evidence.

“Who bothers to read New York anymore?” Ms. Miller asked on Tuesday afternoon.

The day before, New York magazine had posted the contents of its latest issue on the Web. And the likely answer, at the moment, would have been: Just about everybody. At least, just about everybody who knows Ms. Miller, or who holds any sort of opinion about her work at The New York Times .

In New York , Franklin Foer had presented a lengthy, much-anticipated and highly unflattering profile of Ms. Miller, the Pulitzer winner who reported extensively on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction before the war-and who is now bearing the brunt of their absence.

It’s been a tough stretch for Ms. Miller and her work. On May 20, police in Baghdad raided the home and offices of Ahmad Chalabi, the former Iraqi exile who had long been the public face of opposition to Saddam Hussein. The same week, the U.S. cut off Mr. Chalabi’s funding.

As a lobbyist against the old regime, Mr. Chalabi-and his organization, the Iraqi National Congress-had been a key source for Ms. Miller’s scoops about Mr. Hussein’s arsenal. The nameless sources who’d told Ms. Miller about bioterror labs, aluminum nuclear-centrifuge tubes and assorted other frightening details had been I.N.C. sources. And now the I.N.C. was on the skids.

Meanwhile, after months of reluctance, The Times had reversed course on Ms. Miller’s work. On May 26, the paper ran an editor’s note declaring that, having “studied the allegations of official gullibility and hype” in the run-up to war, it was “past time we turned the same light on ourselves.” The note studiously avoided naming Ms. Miller, saying that the problems with prewar coverage were “more complicated” than any single reporter’s alleged misdeeds. But it listed a series of flawed stories, mostly Ms. Miller’s handiwork.

Four days later, public editor Daniel Okrent, who had previously ruled Ms. Miller’s prewar reporting off-limits, took his own whack at the topic-and named Mr. Miller.

As if that weren’t enough fodder for speculation-was it more damning or less for the editor’s note to have avoided naming names?-the avenging, undead wraith of Howell Raines had entered the fracas.

In an e-mail to the Los Angeles Times , which he c.c.’d to the entire journalistic community via the Poynter Institute’s Web site, Mr. Raines complained that the current editors had never asked him, the executive editor under whom many of the problem stories were written, for input into their note. But while he had the floor, Mr. Raines allowed that the blame should probably fall on an array of his subordinate editors-including, by lucky chance, the ones who’d succeeded him: now–executive editor Bill Keller and now–managing editor Jill Abramson.

“Ms. Abramson … supervised a significant amount of Ms. Miller’s reporting and personally edited the resulting stories before they went into the paper,” Mr. Raines noted.

Then came Mr. Foer, who painted Ms. Miller as an out-of-control shrew, guilty of crimes ranging from commandeering a junior colleague’s desk to apparently, in younger years, having flouted Abe Rosenthal’s dictum about fucking the elephants and covering the circus. In the prewar period, by Mr. Foer’s account, Ms. Miller was intoxicated by her access to high-powered sources and capable of browbeating Times editors into letting her run sketchy reports without interference.

Mr. Foer’s piece “speaks for itself in its sleaziness,” Ms. Miller said-then asked to strike that remark from the record. For further comment, she deferred to David Barstow, another Pulitzer winner (“He did this year what I did in 2002″).

Mr. Barstow said that Ms. Miller had referred Mr. Foer to him, giving the New York writer his cell-phone number. But Mr. Foer, he said, had never called.

“I would have told him on the record how much I admire Judy’s passion for the news,” Mr. Barstow said.

Why the omission? “I think that guided by anonymous sources with suspect motives, he knew what his story was going to say, and he didn’t want to muddy it with facts that didn’t support his thesis,” Mr. Barstow said. He paused. “Sound familiar?”

In a building where the Irony-O-Meters are so shaky that The Times could run the editor’s note lamenting the burial of one important follow-up story on page A10 on page A10 , nuance is a dangerous art.

“The same charge that’s leveled against her,” Mr. Barstow explained.

The attacks on his colleague, Mr. Barstow continued, disgusted him. “It’s really sickening for me to watch her get trashed by media critics who have never put themselves on the line the way she has,” he said.

In that, Mr. Barstow echoed Mr. Keller’s quoted comments in the New York piece: “It’s a little galling to watch her pursued by some of these armchair media ethicists who have never ventured into a war zone or earned the right to carry Judy’s laptop,” Mr. Keller reportedly told Mr. Foer.

So on the one hand, The Times is declaring that the investigation into its W.M.D. coverage is “unfinished business,” to be continued with “aggressive reporting.” On the other hand, Mr. Keller is adopting the surly defensiveness of a failed relief pitcher, snapping about sportswriters who’ve never played the game. (Though thanks to the Iraq campaign, a whole new generation of reporters should now have a Red Badge of Courage that entitles them to tote Ms. Miller’s computer.)

Where, then, does this leave Ms. Miller? One rumor in the building had the brass, in the ultimate stand-by-your-woman gesture, preparing to send her back to Iraq. Ms. Miller declined to address that speculation. “I am continuing on this story,” she said, “and I don’t discuss where I’m going with anyone.”

The Times declined to comment on the Foer story. But a spokesperson was more forthcoming about Ms. Miller’s itinerary. Is Ms. Miller Baghdad bound?

“No,” the spokesperson wrote via e-mail. “We have no such plans.”

Certain crimes are made for the tabloid press. So when the body of missing 21-year-old Juilliard acting student Sarah Fox turned up in Inwood Hill Park on May 26, the New York Post and the Daily News indulged their natural habits. The two offered a barrage of reports on the SLAIN JUILLIARD COED, strangled by a BUM or a SEX SICKO who police at first speculated had left a CREEPY “CULT” CLUE of flower petals by her body. By the weekend, both papers-overwhelmed with sympathy for the young, helpless victim-had put themselves on a first-name basis with Sarah (or SLAIN SARAH, as the Post put it).

That’s what tabs do. But in the case of Ms. Fox, they weren’t doing it alone. There was another formidable traveler on the low road from sensationalism to bathos: The New York Times .

The Times ‘ copy desk may be immune to the infinitely conjugatable charms of HUNT and SLAY, but that didn’t stop the Metro staff from wallowing-albeit in its own effete way. The coverage read like a Law & Order: SVU script as run through a creative-nonfiction workshop, all purpling prose and dramatic syntax.

Thus, as follow-up coverage unspooled at West 43rd Street last week, what had been a plain “naked body” reappeared, delicately balanced on a comma, as “a woman’s body, naked and decomposing.” The victim “described by acquaintances as an energetic actress” on May 26 had become by the next day “a radiant young woman with a repertoire of special hugs, imbued with talent and brimming with hope.” The crime scene was transformed from a “thickly wooded area” to “a steep embankment thick with trees and brush.”

Not even Juilliard escaped the inflation. “The rarefied air of its sleekly modern buildings have [ sic ] produced a long list of hallowed names,” N.R. Kleinfeld and Ian Urbina explained on May 27, for the benefit of Times readers unfamiliar with the arts school, “including Miles Davis, Philip Glass, Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Nina Simone, and Robin Williams.” (The Post , listing alumni, stuck to Mr. Williams, Christopher Reeve and Val Kilmer.)

Adding much-needed depth to a compelling story? Or pandering? To find out, Off the Record subjected The Times ‘ day-by-day coverage of the crime to scientific analysis, using the “Readability Statistics” function of Microsoft Word.

The results were striking and unambiguous. On May 26, The Times ran “Body in Inwood Hill Park May Be Missing Juilliard Student,” by Thomas J. Lueck. According to Microsoft Word, the average sentence in Mr. Lueck’s account contained 25.0 words, and the text was written at a 12th-grade level on the Flesch-Kincaid scale. The next day’s follow-up, “For Shining Light at Juilliard, a Tragic End in a Remote Spot,” by Mr. Kleinfeld and Mr. Urbina, had dropped to 19.1 words per sentence and a grade level of 9.7.

The Post and Daily News , meanwhile, were humming along at steady grade levels: the Post mostly between 10th and 11th grade (dipping down to eighth grade for a human-interest sidebar); the Daily News consistently at the upper end of ninth grade.

But The Times was just loosening up for the limbo contest. On May 28, the double-jointed Gray Lady delivered its most deeply stooping work of all: “Lovely Woods, Full of Menace and a Body.” In it, writer Alan Feuer ventured into Inwood Hill Park to meditate on glaciation, the Lenape Indians and the “ticking silence” of the woods where Ms. Fox’s body had been found. “There is not much to hear except the sound of your breath,” Mr. Feuer wrote, using the reportorial second person.

Mr. Feuer’s essay favored the mythic over the investigative; faced with police avowals that the park is safe, he found a civilian in Inwood Hill to tell him about public urination and “rumors of rapes and corpses.” Unable to find the crime scene, he settled for the spookily ironic discovery of “a ‘missing’ poster, with a picture of her face.”

The result was a singularly untaxing piece of writing. By Microsoft Word’s count, Mr. Feuer produced a Beverly Cleary–esque 15.6 words per sentence, writing at a grade level of 6.6.

“Off the Record needs Microsoft Word to tell them what’s good writing?” Mr. Feuer said when informed of the result. “How’s that?”

But Mr. Feuer was pleased by the software’s verdict.

“My sixth-grade teacher was a woman named Mary Krogness,” Mr. Feuer said, “and she was perhaps the best writing teacher I ever had.”

GRADE LEVEL, LEAD JUILLIARD-MURDER STORIES, DAY BY DAY:

5/26: Times 12.0; Post 10.5; Daily News 9.9

5/27: Times 9.7; Post 11.7; Daily News 9.8

5/28: Times 6.6; Post 10.4; Daily News 9.8

WORDS PER SENTENCE, LEAD JUILLIARD-MURDER STORIES, DAY BY DAY:

5/26: Times 25.0; Post 21.4; Daily News 15.5

5/27: Times 19.1; Post 24.7; Daily News 20.3

5/28: Times 15.6; Post 20.9; Daily News 18.6

Negotiations between the union representing The Wall Street Journal ‘s staff and their bosses at Dow Jones and Company have dragged out to the point where the union, IAPE 1096, is getting fidgety. After a fruitless bargaining session last Wednesday, negotiators announced to the newsroom that they are asking management to agree to turn the process over to a mediator.

Dow Jones announced in April that its first-quarter sales were up sharply over those for 2003, but word from the staff side of the bargaining table is that the company is still set on last year’s austerity plan: higher health premiums and lower raises for employees. At a newspaper where ad sales are up a reported 6.3 percent, that makes for a “very explosive and nasty mix,” one staffer said.

Another staffer described the request for a mediator-who could come either from the federal government or a private firm-as a sign of a serious impasse in negotiations.

An impasse wouldn’t be a good thing for Dow Jones, considering that in February the IAPE took the unprecedented step of forming a strike committee; organizers told Off the Record in March the move was made to satisfy reporters and copy editors that a strike would remain under consideration.

Though management rebuffed the union’s initial request for mediation, the company and the union were discussing the possibility again at press time. A bargaining session remained scheduled for Thursday morning.