Miller At Gates, Negotiating Exit With Sulzberger

The end of The New York Times’ five-week standoff with reporter Judith Miller appears to be near. As of Nov. 8, the two sides were closing in on a severance agreement, according to sources familiar with the negotiation.

Last week, with Ms. Miller and The Times stalemated over the terms of her separation from the paper, publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. floated a suggestion: What if Ms. Miller cut short her leave of absence and just came back to West 43rd Street sometime after the weekend?

It was as if the wistful child of a collapsing marriage were suggesting a family picnic—a chance for Dad and Mom to remember how their differences weren’t always so irreconcilable. Maybe she could be some kind of editor?

But Ms. Miller would not be peaceably absorbed into the byline-less grayness of an editing post. Her side countered with a threat that she’d show up at her old reporter’s desk, a source familiar with the negotiations said. The publisher’s trial balloon was swiftly shredded.

It was doubtful that Ms. Miller would accept any position other than a reporting post. And having been serially rebuked in the pages of The Times, Ms. Miller didn’t budge from her demand that she be given space to rebut her critics—whether she returned or she left. Meanwhile, executive editor Bill Keller told Mr. Sulzberger that he was not prepared to accept Ms. Miller’s return to the newsroom in any form, according to a source with knowledge of the negotiations.

The rank and file shared the executive editor’s stance. “There is a quiet rebellion in the newsroom,” a longtime staffer said. “They don’t want her back.”

So the proposal put Mr. Sulzberger at odds with reporters and editorial management—while doing nothing to close the gap between management and Ms. Miller.

And after 85 days in jail for defying special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald, Ms. Miller was piling up more than 40 days in exile, as The Times discovered that while it couldn’t bring her back, it wasn’t so easy to make her go away.

The unfinished business has bred an unsettled newsroom, one still mindful of the breakdown of leadership at the end of the Howell Raines era. Only this time, the disappointment was reaching all the way to the 14th floor.

“The new Howell is Arthur, not Bill,” another staffer said.

The first hint at attempted détente came on Oct. 29, with an editorial that seemed to acknowledge a split within the paper while reaffirming support for Ms. Miller.

“Recently, Times executives have expressed regrets about some of the ways her case was handled,” the editorial said. “Reflecting on these events, we have no reservations about the obligation of this paper to stand behind our reporter while she was in jail. We also think Ms. Miller was right on the central point, that the original blanket White House waiver was coerced.”

Ms. Miller said that she liked the editorial.

It was the rest of the coverage she had a problem with—such as the part about her being a rogue reporter.

“Every story I did was approved by an editor,” Ms. Miller said, over coffee on the terrace outside of Black Cat Books in Sag Harbor on Nov. 5. Her black cockapoo, Hamlet, scampered under the table, sunshine glinting on his rhinestone collar. An orange sweater was draped over her shoulders, and she wore her preferred oversize tortoiseshell sunglasses. She had a Treo holstered at her right hip, and a dime-sized compass clipped to her watchband.

Ms. Miller wasn’t ready for peace just yet. Any mollifying effects of the editorial were nothing next to the pain of the three-stage denunciation she had received from The Times before it: Mr. Keller’s Oct. 21 staff memo, Maureen Dowd’s Oct. 22 Op-Ed column and public editor Byron Calame’s Oct. 23 column.

According to someone involved in the negotiations, Ms. Miller has written a lengthy counterargument that she wants to publish in the paper. The Times has been refusing to give her the space. Without it, Ms. Miller’s stance has been that she would neither part from nor rejoin the paper.

Ms. Miller and her lawyers signaled that they were specifically displeased with—and might consider legal action about—Mr. Keller’s use of the word “entanglement” in his memo to describe Ms. Miller’s connections with now-indicted Vice Presidential aide I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby. In the light of long-circulating gossip about Ms. Miller’s romantic life, that word choice led to widespread speculation and mockery. In a follow-up phone conversation, Ms. Miller described the insinuation as “completely untrue.”

“Many people—many other journalists—assumed that there was an improper relationship,” Ms. Miller said in Sag Harbor. “Many people assumed there was a sexual relationship, which is one reason I’m so insistent on that, on his clarifying [the word choice]. I’ll be diplomatic, O.K.? I call it a correction. And at The New York Times, we call it a correction …. But I’ll settle for a, quote, ‘clarification.’”

With Ms. Miller so insistent on getting a chance to publish her argument, some at the paper are wondering what the Times brass stood to gain by not going along. “It’s hard for me to argue against letting her have her say, to rebut the charges against her,” one Times staffer said. “Aren’t we in the business of letting it all hang out?”

And Ms. Miller’s endurance suggested that the paper may have underestimated how much leverage she would have in negotiations. The most firing-worthy allegations against Ms. Miller—such as insubordination and misleading editors—could all be disputed, depending on how one interprets the evidence.

So Ms. Miller was disputing them.

Take Mr. Keller’s assertion that she had “drifted” back into off-limits reporting territory after her removal from the weapons-of-mass-destruction beat. Ms. Miller pointed out that her reassignment was to cover the United Nations oil-for-food program.

“And the themes, the oil-for-food theme, which was Iraq and weapons and counterterrorism,” Ms. Miller said. “How do you do counterterrorism in New York without talking about unconventional weapons or Iraq? [Every story was] approved at the highest levels of the paper—Mr. Keller and [managing editor Jill] Abramson.”

Ms. Abramson declined to comment. Mr. Keller didn’t return multiple calls seeking comment.

The Times’ executive editor—who had seemingly dropped the Miller problem into Mr. Sulzberger’s lap before going off on a previously scheduled two-week tour of the Asian bureaus—was closely involved in trying to solve it. On Nov. 4, Mr. Keller cancelled a planned visit and lunch discussion with the Washington bureau’s staff to stay in New York and deal with the negotiations over Ms. Miller.

“I was not surprised,” a Washington staffer said. “[Ms. Miller] would be topic A. Everyone knew there were delicate discussions going on. It would be difficult for Bill to talk about it.”

Through the discussions, Mr. Sulzberger has sought to somehow knit together the badly unraveled coalition that originally backed Ms. Miller in her showdown with Mr. Fitzgerald. Besides the estrangement between Ms. Miller and the team of Mr. Keller and Ms. Abramson, there is Mr. Sulzberger’s own awkward relationship with the masthead—as his second-choice editors try to clean up a mess left behind by his first choice, Mr. Raines.

And Mr. Sulzberger has had the larger legal position of The Times to consider. On Nov. 4, an appellate court upheld a ruling that Times reporter James Risen—along with three reporters from other papers—must testify about his confidential sources in Wen Ho Lee’s civil suit against government officials who leaked accusations of espionage. Under that ruling, Mr. Risen faces daily fines for contempt.

The Times is also confronting a defamation lawsuit by Steven J. Hatfill against the paper and columnist Nicholas D. Kristof. Mr. Hatfill is suing over columns that accused him of being behind the anthrax mailings of 2001. In that case, The Times is planning an appeal to the Supreme Court to try to stop the suit from going to trial.

Mr. Hatfill’s suit specifically cites the controversies surrounding Ms. Miller’s reporting, though it doesn’t name her. At one point, it quotes from The Times’ 2003 editors’ note on the paper’s W.M.D. coverage, and from former public editor Daniel Okrent’s column on the topic—arguing that the same sort of institutional and reportorial failures could be found in Mr. Kristof’s anthrax columns.

The infighting over Ms. Miller’s alleged misdeeds has done nothing to shore up the paper’s overall legal defenses. And after The Times chose to mount an aggressive First Amendment defense against Mr. Fitzgerald, Ms. Miller’s move to testify and get out of the Alexandria Detention Center helped split her from Mr. Sulzberger and the paper.

Despite the publisher’s much-publicized massage-martini-and-meat celebration of Ms. Miller’s release, he did not agree with Ms. Miller’s choice, according to a person familiar with the case.

After the 15 editorials the paper had run—at Mr. Sulzberger’s urging—supporting Ms. Miller’s refusal to give up her source, the eventual revelations about her conversations with Mr. Libby rankled the newsroom. So did Mr. Sulzberger’s quote to the Times reporters covering the Miller case that Ms. Miller had “had her hand on the wheel” during the legal process—and his attempt to take it back a week later by telling Mr. Calame that his quotes had been taken out of context in his own newspaper.

And notably, it was Ms. Miller’s willingness to go to jail, not her willingness to get out, that the most recent supportive editorial endorsed.

Still, Ms. Miller remained secure in her decision to testify. “I would have stayed in jail as long as necessary if my conditions weren’t met,” Ms. Miller said by phone.

“With all due respect to my other critics, who won’t give me the benefit of that doubt, who don’t want to have that kind of a discussion—I was the one sitting in jail. I was the one singing ‘Happy 77th Birthday’ to my husband in jail. I was the one—in fact, my friends after a while said they would come on their birthdays, but only if I promise not to sing. I was the one living with the consequences of that decision.”

Ms. Miller continued: “I welcome a debate on the subjects that we should debate …. But to then let all this other stuff blur the core issue—W.M.D., alleged sleeping with sources, taking seats away from colleagues 15 years ago—to let all of that cloud the issue does our profession and those issues no good.”

New York Times pundit standings, Nov. 1-7, 2005

1. (tie) David Brooks, score 0.0 [rank last week: tie—2nd]

Maureen Dowd, 0.0 [1st]

Thomas L. Friedman, 0.0 [tie—2nd]

Bob Herbert, 0.0 [tie—2nd]

Nicholas D. Kristof, 0.0 [tie—2nd]

Paul Krugman, 0.0 [tie—2nd]

Frank Rich, 0.0 [tie—2nd]

John Tierney, 0.0 [tie—2nd]

Maureen Dowd’s Oct. 30 New York Times Magazine essay (Women Are From Venus, Men Are From—Whoa! Lookit the Rack on Her!) topped the Most E-Mailed List for a second straight week. Perhaps Ms. Dowd should begin referring to herself as a “Times Magazine writer,” because this week, not even she could break the chains of TimesSelect. For the first time ever, not one regular Op-Ed column made it onto the Most E-Mailed list. Zeros upon zeros, upward and downward. And the Thomas L. Friedman shall be made John Tierney, and the John Tierney shall be made Thomas L. Friedman, and the Frank Rich shall lie down with the Bob Herbert, forever and ever, amen.

—Tom Scocca Miller At Gates, Negotiating Exit With Sulzberger