MIDDLEBURY -- Judith Miller may not be a model of journalistic rectitude, but she should nevertheless be defended in her confrontation with the perpetrators of an escalating "assault on journalism," the New York Times' managing editor argued in a talk at Middlebury College on October 17.
Jill Abramson, second-in-command of the Times' news operation, expressed skepticism about aspects of Miller's role in what the newspaper has cast as a showdown over freedom of the press. Abramson acknowledged that there are confusing, even contradictory, elements in her colleague's account of the case involving White House officials' outing of an undercover CIA operative.
Miller, a Times reporter on national security issues, spent nearly three months in jail for refusing to name the Bush administration source who told her about the agent in the run-up to the Iraq war. Miller's informant, whom she eventually did identify in grand jury testimony, was Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the top aide to Vice President Richard Cheney. Libby apparently leaked the CIA agent's name in an attempt to discredit the agent's husband, who had challenged Bush's claims that Saddam Hussein was harboring weapons of mass destruction.
In her talk at Middlebury, Abramson made note of Miller's problematic performance as a reporter. The Times has run self-critical articles and apologetic editorials in response to Miller's many erroneous stories about a weapons stockpile that turned out not to exist. Some critics say Miller's botched reporting helped the Bush administration lead the country into war on false pretenses.
Miller "likely was used" by the White House for nefarious ends, Abramson suggested. She described Miller as a talented but flawed reporter who "needed close editors' supervision and didn't always get it."
But Abramson rejected the view that Miller was eager to play the part of First Amendment martyr in order to win redemption for her journalistic sins. "You have to be something beyond a cynic to believe Judy Miller wanted to go to jail to change the storyline of her career," Abramson said.
Miller, 57, did suffer during her 81 days of imprisonment, added Abramson, who visited the reporter in jail. Miller was often kept locked in her cell where a fluorescent light was constantly shining, Abramson related. She had to sleep initially on a concrete floor and had limited access to reading materials. "Miller was thin when she entered jail and emaciated by the time she left," Abramson said.
Members of the capacity audience at Middlebury often prefaced questions to Abramson with expressions of respect and even affection for The New York Times. But many of the questions were critical or at least skeptical of Miller's situation and of the Times' own work. The newspaper has felt obliged to respond in print on several occasions in recent years to complaints about the veracity of some of its stories and the professionalism of some of its journalists.
Abramson acknowledged her paper's imperfections but unequivocally endorsed its interpretation of Miller's case as a battle over journalism's most cherished principles. "Miller and the Times were fighting the good fight in resisting a prosecutor's demand that she testify about her conversations with a confidential source," Abramson declared at the outset of her talk.
Noting that she has long regarded Watergate muckraker Bob Woodward as a hero, Abramson cited several important stories of the past 40 years that, she said, could not have been written without reliance on confidential sources. Abramson added that in her own work she has regularly pledged to protect the identity of sources, even though that sometimes amounts to "a devil's bargain" with self-serving or malicious officials.
Washington reporters operate today in a dangerous climate of growing government secrecy and erosion of the public's right to know, Abramson said. About 70 journalists have been subpoenaed in regard to their reporting in the past 15 months, and nearly a dozen have faced threats of imprisonment, she noted.
"The United States is moving backward in protecting freedom of the press," Abramson said. "Other democracies have stronger legal protections of sources than does our country."