“On the First Amendment,” Judith Miller said, “I am a hard-liner.”
Ms. Miller—the redoubtable, doubtable New York Times scoop artist—was on the phone Monday afternoon, giving an interview on her way to get an interview. The quick-change routine is well practiced by now: from reporter to news object and back again.
But even Ms. Miller sounded a bit breathless from her latest adventures. On Oct. 7, federal judge Thomas Hogan had found her in contempt of court for refusing to discuss her confidential sources and ordered her to jail for up to 18 months—then freed her on bond pending an appeal. The next morning, it was front-page news in her own paper; two days after that, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and chief executive Russell Lewis commandeered the top of the Sunday Op-Ed page for a booming defense of Ms. Miller and, in the bargain, the freedom of the press.
“Her crime was doing her job as the founders of this nation intended,” they wrote.
In the middle of it all, on Saturday, Ms. Miller had a page-one piece of her own, a joint byline with Eric Lipton on an article about the Iraqi oil-for-food program. Her aim, Ms. Miller said, had been to “try and get a front-page story in my paper, to show people that I’m going to continue writing.”
The prospect of martyrdom seemed to have left Ms. Miller in high spirits, if not exactly glad ones; her end of the conversation was peppered with incredulous laughter. “I’ve been kind of amazed at the outpouring of support from other journalists,” she said.
Ms. Miller is in the varied collection of reporters entangled with the grand jury investigating who leaked of the identity of C.I.A. agent Valerie Plame to the press. The leaked information was published not by Ms. Miller, but by conservative columnist Robert Novak in the Chicago Sun-Times, as the Bush administration attempted to (depending on who’s telling the story) rebut, intimidate or smear Ms. Plame’s husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, who’d criticized the administration’s claims about Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions.
Till now, the W.M.D. question has done nothing to burnish Ms. Miller’s journalistic credentials. On October 3, The Times ran yet another piece revising its prewar coverage of Iraq’s mass-destructive capabilities. Following the lead of The Washington Post —which had broken the same news 14 months earlier— The Times meticulously demonstrated how the Bush administration had tilted evidence so that captured aluminum tubes, meant as Iraqi artillery rocket parts, could be passed off as nuclear centrifuge components.
And if The Times was more than a year late reacting to The Post, it was more than two years late reacting to itself. Far down, the Oct. 3 piece offered an implicit confession of institutional and reportorial failure: “[O]n Sept. 8 , the lead article on Page 1 of The New York Times gave the first detailed account of the aluminum tubes. The article cited unidentified senior administration officials who insisted that the dimensions, specifications and numbers of tubes sought showed that they were intended for a nuclear weapons program …. The article gave no hint of a debate over the tubes.”
The Times didn’t name the authors of the original piece, but they were Ms. Miller and Michael R. Gordon.
Yet by Monday, there was no more thought of the suspicious tubes—nor MET Team Alpha, the baseball-cap-wearing mystery scientist, or the rest of Ms. Miller’s dubious or anonymous portfolio. Ms. Miller was no longer the Belle of Babylon, the volunteer page of the Iraqi National Congress, Miss Bad Intelligence Rising herself. She was Judy again.
That was how the op-ed from Mr. Sulzberger, her old colleague at the Washington bureau, referred to her: “Judy Miller”—not “Judith.” Sending Judy Miller to jail, Mr. Sulzberger and Mr. Lewis argued, will threaten the press’ “ability to gather and receive information in confidence from those who would face reprisals from bringing important information about our government into the light of day.”
Ms. Miller said she was heartened by the brass’ public declaration of solidarity. “It’s less lonely,” she said, “but it makes me wonder what happens when this happens to someone who doesn’t have the power and the influence and the money of The New York Times behind them.”
Had something like this happened earlier in her career, when she wrote for the less formidable likes of The Progressive magazine, Ms. Miller said, “a lawsuit would have turned me towards being a real-estate broker.” (“Of course, I would have been richer,” she added.)
Even with the stand-up-for-the-little-man rhetoric, though, there is a certain Nazis-marching-through-Skokie tone to the present case. Ms. Miller is not going to the mat for some helpless whistleblower; she’s defending the right of high officials to try to anonymously sic The New York Times on a subordinate who bucked them. Mr. Wilson signed his own name to his criticisms, and it was the confidential sources who allegedly sought reprisal.
“For some group of people, that would be called whistleblowing,” Mr. Sulzberger said on the phone Tuesday evening—for instance, he said, people who thought Mr. Wilson’s complaints about the administration (aired in a Times op-ed) hadn’t shared all the relevant facts.
“I’m not suggesting that you have to agree every time with whether that person should have given out that information,” Mr. Sulzberger said.
Floyd Abrams, Ms. Miller’s lawyer, offered a similar view. “The law can’t distinguish between good leaks and bad,” Mr. Abrams said. Mr. Abrams is also representing Time magazine’s Matt Cooper, who will be facing Judge Hogan today in his own contempt hearing in the Plame affair. Mr. Cooper appears almost certain to share Ms. Miller’s fate, in which case Mr. Abrams said their appeals will be lumped together in the Court of Appeals. If they lose, both could be in jail by Thanksgiving.
It could make a reality-TV show, Ms. Miller suggested brightly: “Matt and me and Martha.”
Unlike imprisoned journalist Ms. Stewart, neither Ms. Miller nor Mr. Cooper has been convicted of anything. Their confinement is meant to coerce them into telling the grand jury about their sources. So they would be held till the grand jury is finished—or 18 months, whichever comes first, Mr. Abrams said.
“I’ve only had one other client who was sent away,” Mr. Abrams said. That was The Times ’ Myron Farber, jailed for refusing to provide evidence during a New Jersey murder trial in 1978 and held till the trial was over. “He was there for 40 days,” Mr. Abrams said. “I used to bring him donuts on Sundays.”
Now he may see two more clients behind bars—despite the reporters’ markedly different approaches to handling the Plame leak. Mr. Cooper, presented with the top-down whistleblowing, wrote an article denouncing the leakers. “I wrote the first piece saying that there was an effort to smear Joe Wilson,” Mr. Cooper said. “I shouldn’t have to go to jail for that. I shouldn’t have to go to jail for doing my job.”
But Ms. Miller can top that: She never wrote anything about Ms. Plame at all.
“Judy Miller being threatened with jail for having gotten information for a story she never wrote and we never ran is illogical to me, and dangerous,” Mr. Sulzberger said.
Would Times editors who might have known of Ms. Miller’s reporting also be eligible for a subpoena? Mr. Sulzberger said he didn’t know whether her work had even entered the editorial process, and didn’t care to explore the implications. “I think one person in jail is enough for The New York Times,” he said.
And Ms. Miller said that the differences in individual reporters’ actions are beside the point. “The last thing I want to do is start dividing journalists,” she said. ” … This is not the time to start saying, ‘Why me and not him?’”
Ms. Miller did, however, note one division between herself and other subpoenaed journalists. Some reporters, including Mr. Cooper, agreed to testify about one particular source, Vice Presidential chief of staff Lewis (Scooter) Libby, after Mr. Libby waived his confidentiality agreement with them.
Despite Mr. Libby’s apparent enthusiasm to put his remarks on the record, Ms. Miller described the waivers as a “pernicious” concept. “I do not consider these waivers voluntary,” she said.
Mr. Sulzberger and Ms. Miller both argued that the case shows the need for a federal shield law, establishing legal protection for reporter-source agreements akin to that for lawyers and clients, or priests and parishioners.
“It’s not about Judy Miller,” Mr. Sulzberger said. “It’s bigger than that.”
“This is really all about the readers,” Ms. Miller said. “This is all about the public—the public’s right to know.”
Even so, a lot of it is about Judy Miller. “Keep those cards and letters coming,” Ms. Miller said.
And while the legal encroachment on anonymous sources may threaten one of Ms. Miller’s favorite reporting tools, it hasn’t cut into her ability to report. “Quite the opposite,” she said. The current case, she said, proves her commitment to her methods: “I’m willing to go to jail to protect my sources,” she said.
It also gives her a rebuttal to any “snotty” Millerologists, who’ve tried tracking the way her bylines seem to rise and fall in frequency along with the tide of W.M.D.-themed editors’ notes and follow-up stories.
“For all those people who wonder what happened to Judy Miller,” Ms. Miller said, “what happened to Judy Miller was she got involved in something called the American legal process.”
“Dear Internet,” blogger The Minor Fall, The Major Lift wrote last month, ” … [I]n all likelihood, this is goodbye.” A friend, the posting explained, had taken the blogger aside and “gently informed us that we should quit blogging, since our heart seemed no longer to be in it and it was “painful to watch.”
This coming Sunday, after years of pseudonymously mocking the major media, the writer formerly known as TMFTML makes his New York Times debut under his own name. The new byline is Alex Balk. The piece is a guest spot in the Arts & Leisure section’s “Playlist” column, following such previous celebrity contributors as Dave Grohl, Stephin Merritt and Danger Mouse.
“I asked him to do it and he did it,” said Ariel Kaminer, the editor at Arts & Leisure responsible for Mr. Balk’s crossover.
That’s not all Ms. Kaminer asked, Mr. Balk said. She was the one who told him to quit the blog, too. “It had sort of run its course,” he said. Ms. Kaminer’s intervention, he said, was “the final nail.”
“I’d like to think I’m doing my level best to drain the blogosphere of all its best talent,” Ms. Kaminer said, citing kicked-upstairs Gawker ex-scribe Choire Sicha as another freelance ornament to the Webified A&L section.
Mr. Balk said he’s hoping his ex-peers in the blog world will pounce on his Times work. “I’d be a little hypocritical not to,” he said. But he added that he has new sympathy for print writers, having been through the editing process himself: “You realize how much originality is drained out.”
And Mr. Balk throws a bone to his old medium by including, in his list of recommended CD’s and DVD’s, the mp3 blog Fluxblog.
Is that a defensive gesture, out of guilt at selling out? Not at Times pay rates, Mr. Balk said. “If I were selling out, I would have gone for something much better,” he said. “Like New York magazine. I really want to sell out to them.”
Tuesday was a bad day for the pipes in Manhattan media infrastructure. From midday on, the majority of the restrooms at The New York Times were out of order. Male Times employees were allowed to use the urinals, but folks with flushing-related business at West 43rd Street had to leave the premises. Some took advantage of the facilities at the Westin.
Off the Record presents that information as a public service, because Gawker was sidelined from roughly 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., thanks to what Gawker empire chief Nick Denton called “a perfect storm of technical problems” in an instant-messenger interview.
How The Times survived a day cut off from the two leading forms of writerly procrastination was unclear at press time.
This week, New York magazine presented the first of its major renovation projects under editor Adam Moss: a wildly expanded service section, “The Strategist.” In a pair of lengthy explanatory messages—one on the cover—the magazine promotes it as a wide-ranging, 22-page smorgasbord of things to buy and do. “Every New Yorker should be able to find something in it they can use and afford,” the inside editors’ note explains.
If they can make it through, that is. “The Strategist” is handsome, but 22 pages is an awfully long shopping list—even if you subtract the space New York filled by moving the sex column in among the goods and services. Amy Sohn’s recommodified vagina aside, what can readers take away from it all? In the name of service journalism, Off the Record presents the summarized “Strategist”:
Fur-bearing species and their post-mortem habitats:
Mink ( Mustela vison)—trim on alligator slingbacks at Judith Lieber
Raccoon ( Procyon lotor)—trim on Andrew Mark coat
Rabbit ( Oryctolagus cuniculus)—Alexander McQueen coat
Vintages and prices of Chateau d’Yquem discussed:
1923, $2,013.75 per bottle
1983, $100 per glass (includes dessert)
Average price of featured parkas:
Non-waterproof and/or uncomfortable: $427.75
Some things between $300 and $400, in order of ascending price:
Top-of-the-line Joan Vass linen shirt ($300)
Bottom-of-the-line Bennett Liberty copper-and-leather bowl ($300)
Trip to Isiah Thomas’ hairdresser ($350)
Sodium tetradecyl sulfate injections to treat spider veins (initial session) ($375)
Double room at On the Ave Hotel ($375)
Beauty day at Bergdorf Goodman ($393)
Bottom-of-the-line Vita-Mix 5000 blender ($399)
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