She appears to have reflected very little, though, on her failures in reporting on intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq when the Bush administration was rushing the United States into that disastrous war.
Here’s how little The Story reveals about any examination by Miller of the weaknesses of her own reporting about WMDs: In her only reference to either of the Knight-Ridder reporters who reported extensively on the intelligence community’s doubts about Iraq’s WMDs, Miller identifies Jonathan Landay incorrectly as being with “the McClatchy newspaper chain.” McClatchy would not buy Knight-Ridder until 2006, but the context of the discussion Miller was recounting was 2004.
Landay and Warren Strobel worked for Knight-Ridder when they did the journalism that Miller and her New York Times colleagues should have been doing: reporting on doubts within U.S. intelligence agencies about the claims that Iraq was making weapons of mass destruction.
Because the Times and other media were all parroting the Bush administration’s claims that Iraq had WMD’s, even some Knight-Ridder editors often didn’t run or buried the Landay-Strobel stories that countered that narrative. As Erik Wemple of the Washington Post noted in 2013, “They published dissenting material, though their voices didn’t pierce the compliant noise from their peers.”
Miller, chief among those compliant peers, mentioned Landay in the context of a conversation with Times editors Bill Keller and Jill Abramson, who were preparing an editor’s note acknowledging the weaknesses in the newspaper’s pre-war coverage of intelligence about WMD’s. The two paragraphs in The Story about Landay (on Page 220) are fascinating and telling:
Others had written better, more comprehensive stories about the dispute, Keller said. Jonathan Landay of the McClatchy newspaper chain, for instance, had written in greater detail about it in October. Why hadn’t I?
I recalled that Landay’s story was published about a month after ours. It had quoted one source by name: David Albright. At the time, no editor had mentioned it to me or Michael.
I’ll explain later* who Michael and David Albright are, but here’s what these paragraphs say about Miller and the Times:
- Miller found only one Landay story worth noting in her examination of her own WMD reporting.
- In noting that she recalled the Landay story (rather than digging it up in her research later), Miller acknowledges that she was aware at the time of his reporting. Which means she essentially blew it off at the time.
- She is dismissive of the only Landay story she acknowledges, noting that she wrote about the same topic first and that he used unnamed sources more than she did. Those would be points to boast about only if she had gotten the story right.
- If Miller is correct that no Times editors mentioned the Landay story at the time, that also is telling about the newspaper’s lack of consideration at the time about whether its reporting was right.
If Miller were truly writing an introspective account of her career and the stories for which she became infamous, the Knight-Ridder stories might have merited a full chapter. As it is, the only mention of Knight-Ridder (other than the McClatchy mention that should have been Knight-Ridder) is a passing mention on Page 247 about a story that questioned the credibility of one of her sources, Adnan Saeed Haideri al-Haideri, an Iraqi chemical engineer. Knight-Ridder and Strobel didn’t even rate entries in the book’s index.
If everyone in the media had screwed up in coverage of intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, The Story might fly. It tells how she gained her expertise in germ warfare and Middle Eastern affairs. The book details how deftly she managed Times politics and how hard she worked to report her many erroneous stories about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. You understand well how she became such an important reporter. You don’t doubt that she earned her Pulitzer Prize, her place on the Times best-seller list and all the front-page stories she boasts about. She provides an insightful (and at times shameful) glimpse into how turf-conscious journalists (especially Times journalists) can be.
Miller also makes valid points that she was not a solo operator at the Times. She shared bylines on many of her WMD stories and editors not only published her stories, but closely watched the competition, and none of those colleagues started matching or pushing for the Times to match the Knight-Ridder stories.
But Miller was proud to lead the Times coverage leading up to the war. And The Story is her story. Like her career, the book turns on her WMD reporting. Miller painstakingly debunks notions about her reporting, quantifying how little she relied on Ahmad Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress, an exile group that favored U.S. intervention in Iraq, and denying that she was “spoon-fed” her stories by the Bush administration and repeating ad nauseam the expertise of the sources she used (not high-level administration sources, she notes repeatedly, but in-the-trenches experts on intelligence, germ warfare and Iraq).
But the undeniable fact is that someone else was reporting the truth that U.S. intelligence had grave doubts about whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. And the best Judith Miller and the Times could do were hedges in their stories about the certainty that Iraq was making and stockpiling WMDs.
As Wemple said in a post skewering Miller’s book:
And again, Miller looks back at all that glorious qualifying language. ‘I was okay with it. The story contained numerous caveats.’
Note to Miller: People don’t read the caveats.
All the detail about how hard she worked on her flawed stories might matter if she had bothered to explain why she got the underlying story wrong when others were getting it right. How did she react to their stories? Was the mighty Times too dismissive of Knight-Ridder? Did she hear of the doubts from some sources but dismiss them because of assurances from sources she trusted more? Was her circle of sources so narrow that she never heard the doubts? Did Landay and Strobel have a key source, or sources in a key area of the intelligence network, that she couldn’t crack? We never find out.
Miller barely mentions the journalists who got the story right. She just falls back again on her excuse I have ripped repeatedly in this blog and an earlier blog. On Page 291, describing a story by Don Van Natta Jr. and other Times reporters about the paper’s failures in covering WMD intelligence, Miller wrote:
As I acknowledged in Van Natta’s piece, I had gotten WMD ‘totally wrong.’ ‘If your sources were wrong,’ I told them, ‘you are wrong.’ I had done the best I could to verify the classified information I had often gotten first, the story had quoted me as saying. But I was ‘wrong.’
As I have said again and again, journalists, not sources, are responsible for the accuracy of our work. Other journalists got this story right, and it was shameful for her to write about it more than a decade later without a shade of introspection, still blaming her sources and still boasting of being “first” on a story that was wrong.
More of her shoving blame on her sources:
Relying on the conclusions of American and foreign intelligence analysts and other experts I trusted, I, too, got WMD in Iraq wrong. But not because I lacked skepticism or because senior officials spoon-fed me a line.
Her denial that she was spoon-fed by Bush administration and its stooges is irrelevant at this point. Her sources were consistently singing the song of the Bush administration. She read reports by other journalists that contradicted her reports and wasn’t skeptical enough to pursue these contradictions. Whether she worked hard to get her sources to talk or they spoon-fed her (and whether they were senior officials or analysts) is really beside the point now. She was wrong, and she still hasn’t bothered to figure out why. So why should we think that she’s right about being spoon-fed? Here are two facts:
- Journalists never know for sure about the motivations of their sources for talking to the press.
- Journalists never know for sure whether our sources have talked to other people about what they should or shouldn’t tell us.
Given those facts and the undeniable reality that Miller screwed up the central facts of the biggest stories of her career, why should we believe her protestation that she wasn’t used by the Bush administration in its rush to war? If she wasn’t used, she certainly was useful, and I don’t much care about the difference.
The book also repeats a confession of unethical journalism — and a protest that it wasn’t unethical — in her dealings with I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney whom Miller went to prison protecting as a confidential source. She agreed in her interview with Libby to describe him, if she used anything from their conversation, as a “former Hill staffer,” a term that was accurate but intentionally misleading. Bristling about the criticism for this deception by Times columnist Maureen Dowd, Miller wrote:
She did not note that I had not identified Libby at all or written about his allegations. I would never have tried, or have been permitted, to identify Libby in print as a ‘former Hill staffer.’
In twenty-eight years at the paper, I had never once been accused of misrepresenting a source. I had agreed to Libby’s terms to hear his version of events. If his claims could be verified, I would have insisted on a more accurate description of him or refused to publish his account. This was a fairly common technique among investigative reporters. The Times style and standards book permits such intricate negotiations between reporters and their sources. As the paper’s policy on confidential sources states, there are occasions when ‘we may use an offer of anonymity as a wedge to make telephone contact, get an interview or learn a fact.’
Well, actually, she misrepresented dozens of sources as being knowledgeable about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so that point was BS. But the passage from the standards book doesn’t support Miller’s agreement with Libby to deceive readers. An “offer of anonymity” is a world different from an agreement to use a misleading description of a source.
And whether Miller ever wrote a story using the misleading identification is irrelevant. The fact is that she, by her own admission, told the vice president’s chief of staff that she was willing to publish misleading information. And she never contradicted that statement to him by going back to him and trying to get him to agree to a different description. So that important person was entitled to read every story she wrote and every story in the Times and every story any journalist wrote, wondering what deceptions the journalists had agreed to (or decided on unilaterally). And he was entitled to tell the vice president and anyone else he wanted to about journalists’ willingness to deceive.
When Libby suggested “former Hill staffer” as a way to refer to him (and this only gets worse if it wasn’t Libby’s suggestion), that was an opportunity for Miller to educate him about journalism standards, or Times standards or her own standards. Sadly, she did educate him, at least about her standards, by agreeing. That she has no regret about that agreement is shameful enough, but she compounded that shame by smearing investigative journalism as a craft by calling her deceptive practice common. I never agreed to identify a source in a misleading way, and I am confident that few, if any, other investigative journalists would agree to do so, whether they followed through on the promise or not.
It’s interesting that Miller’s book came out the same week as the Columbia School of Journalism report on the Rolling Stone‘s botched coverage of a rape allegation at the University of Virginia.
In a similar way, Rolling Stone admitted error while blaming its source. Managing Editor Will Dana rejected the Columbia report’s statement that “The editors invested Rolling Stone’s reputation in a single source.”
In an interview with the Times, Dana said, “I think if you take a step back, our reputation rests on a lot more than this one story.”
The Times and Rolling Stone both have long histories of journalistic excellence. And Rolling Stone probably will recover, as the Times has recovered from the damage done by Miller and her colleagues in covering pre-war intelligence about WMD’s.
But Dana is wrong: Your reputation as a journalist or a publication rests on any and every story. Some readers will never again trust Rolling Stone or the Times, based on the egregious errors they published. Others take years to rebuild trust.
Miller’s memoir documents a distinguished career. But your reputation does rest on every story. Miller’s reputation has not recovered from the damage of her WMD reporting. More than a decade later, The Story won’t help repair the damage.
* Explanation note: In the passage from page 220, “Michael” was Times reporter Michael Gordon, with whom Miller had collaborated on a story about Iraq’s acquisition of aluminum tubes that were incorrectly suspected at the time as being centrifuges for use in making nuclear weapons. David Albright was a source of Miller’s, whom she or the editors cut out of
their a follow-up story on the tubes. Correction: The original version of this post indicated Albright was a source cut from the original story about the aluminum tube, rather than a follow-up story.
Disclosures: Erik Wemple of the Washington Post, cited twice here, is a former colleague from our TBD days. Jerry Ceppos, my dean at LSU, was vice president for news at Knight-Ridder in the time before the invasion of Iraq. I was praising the Knight-Ridder coverage of WMD intelligence long before coming to LSU.
Update: I sought an email address for Miller, but neither her Simon & Schuster author page nor her bio at Fox News lists a way to reach her. If you have an email address for Miller, please send it to me (stephenbuttry — at — gmail — dot — com) and I will invite her to comment.
Update: Jack Shafer did an excellent critique of The Story for Politico.
Previous mentions of the Miller case on this blog