Jayson Blair hurt the institution’s credibility, but Judy Miller damaged the entire country – and the world
IN HER COLUMN noting the tenth anniversary of the worst institutional failure in recent memory at The New York Times, Public Editor Margaret Sullivan on Sunday asserted the organization has taken steps to repair the damage to its credibility. Read it here.
That may be true, but did she ask the right question?
From this perspective, a better one might be: Who did more harm while they worked at The Gray Lady?
The culprits, for different reasons, were Jayson Blair and Judith Miller.
Blair got a much bigger correction, perhaps 5,000 words. Miller’s was about 2,000 – and she wasn’t even named in it. Read it here. The entire fiasco, however, cost much more than Howell Raines’s job as executive editor. And, it cost more than just an enduring loss of credibility for The New York Times.
Blair was simply a liar. He confessed to Katie Couric on NBC News on March 17, 2004. See it here.
He sat in a hotel room watching an event he was supposed to be covering. He fabricated sources, even trips to distant places that never happened.
It took a team of Times reporters weeks to unearth all the misdeeds.
“A staff reporter for The New York Times committed frequent acts of journalistic fraud while covering significant news events in recent months, an investigation by Times journalists has found,” they wrote in a Page One “correction” on May 11, 2003. Read it here.
Meanwhile, Miller, who had earned a reputation as a master analyst of national security affairs specializing in weapons of mass destruction, got suckered by an Iraqi exile (and his stooges) who had already been fired by the CIA.
Ahmed Chalabi, of the Iraqi National Council, was feeding Miller all sorts of falsehoods about aluminum tubes, chemical weapons and other horrors Saddam Hessein was inflicting on his people.
Unbeknownst to Miller, Chalabi’s exiles were feeding the exact same lies to the Office of the Vice President, where it was exactly what Chief of Staff Scooter Libby wanted to hear.
Thinking she was doing reportorial due diligence, Miller would check Chalabi’s “scoops” with a second source – the OVP.
Sure enough, they said, they had heard the same dope.
When the story ran in the Page One lead position of The New York Times the next day, Vice President Dick Cheney would rush in front of the closest TV camera and say: “Look what was in the paper today! Ain’t that Saddam nasty? We simply must take him out.”
This happened so often that by the time the U.S. brought it’s “shock and awe” to bear on Baghdad, most Americans believed all the lies: that Saddam had a nuke pointed at Washington (and the means to deliver it); that he and Osama bin Laden were buddies; and that Saddam had been shopping for uranium in Niger.
IF THERE is anyone more responsible for the loss of life and treasure as the U.S. destroyed Iraq than President George Bush himself, then it must be Judith Miller.
After all, if it was in The New York Times, then it must be true. Right?
Not everyone was hoodwinked, however. Jonathan Landy and colleagues in the Washington Bureau of McClatchy Newspapers, a small chain of 31 papers, told Frontline later how they investigated many of the same claims published in Miller’s stories, and arrived at completely opposite conclusions.
But McClatchy had no outlet in the capital. No one in the White House or Congress read their reports casting doubt on the propaganda spewing forth from the highest levels of government. Even their own client newspapers put the Washington Bureau’s stories deep inside the paper, running the ones from The New York Times Wire Service on the front page.
Voices like those of Iraq Weapons Inspector Scott Ritter, who was sounding the alarm about the “faulty intelligence,” were seldom heard in The New York Times, certainly not on Page One. (Matt Bai, the genius, did a brilliant piece on Ritter’s fall from grace in February 2012. Read it here.)
But, where was Ritter when it really mattered? Buried on Page 23, if in the paper at all, because the editors at The New York Times just were not sufficiently skeptical of the BS emanating from Judy Miller’s “anonymous” sources at The White House.
THIS IS A tragedy of gargantuan proportions, because it affected far more than just the credibility of America’s most trusted news source.
It helped lead the U.S. – and allies like Britain’s Tony Blair – into a disastrous, expensive and totally unnecessary war that cost billions and over 100,000 lives.
Seen in this perspective, the damage caused by Jayson Blair was small potatoes, indeed. He certainly hurt his employer, and all of us who trusted her.
But his falsehoods didn’t do nearly as much damage to the country – and the world – as Miller’s.
Perhaps there was some divine retribution in her eventual banishment to Fox News, where the “truth” is an irrelevancy.
Sorry, Margaret. The Times may indeed be taking steps to repair the damage and do its best to ensure that something like these twin disasters never happen again.
But those of us who believe in The New York Times as an institution still wonder, almost daily, when we read anonymously sourced stories on Page One, whether someone as gullible as Miller wrote them.