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August 27, 2014

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The flawed guardian of the First Amendment

New York Times reporter Judith Miller should be a journalistic hero.

She made one of the greatest sacrifices in journalism: She went to prison instead of giving in to a prosecutor and naming a source.

She should have been carried out on the shoulders of a crowd at the Society of Professional Journalists' convention Tuesday at the Aladdin.

Instead only about half of the crowd of 350 people rose to their feet and applauded when she was given the group's First Amendment award.

Miller is the logical person to carry the message that the First Amendment is being eroded daily. But she is a flawed messenger. She is a journalistic conundrum wrapped in a quandary wrapped in a newspaper.

She's a reporter only a mother could love. While she collects awards, she's also receiving criticism for her work and her methods.

A story Sunday in her own paper labeled her a "divisive figure" in the newsroom.

She was the driving force behind The New York Times' errant reporting that said there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. ("Sources can be wrong, Republicans and Democrats," she said Tuesday, admitting, "I was wrong.")

She was jailed because she refused to cooperate with a special prosecutor's investigation into the leak of a CIA agent's name. She never wrote a story about it, but she was protecting a source. That source was believed to be spreading the name to get back at the agent's husband -- a critic of the Bush administration who refuted the claim that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

She finally testified to the grand jury after her source, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, gave his blessing.

But her testimony, as she reported in the Times, would have made President Ronald Reagan proud.

Despite 85 days in a federal prison in Virginia and months of court hearings, she said she didn't think Libby told her the name, and said someone else, whom she couldn't remember, gave her the name.

Not that it would have mattered. The agent's name, Valerie Plame Wilson, came out "Valerie Flame" and "Veronica Wilson" in her notes.

Now freed of her prison coveralls, Miller is cloaked in the First Amendment, trying to put a face on a bill that would shield journalists from subpoenas for their notes or names of sources.

The bill is widely supported by journalists and is gaining support in Congress. Several states have shield laws, but a national law would broaden that protection and protect reporters from being forced to give up their sources. It would also give direction to the courts, which have varied in their interpretations of a reporter's privilege.

Such a law is vital to the work of the media. It's not a stretch to say it is also vital to the democracy -- without protection, would another Deep Throat emerge? Would anyone in government turn over crucial information of corruption if a prosecutor could force a reporter to roll over?

Miller spoke Tuesday to a room of true believers -- people who champion shield laws. It should have been a revival. It turned into a lecture that rang hollow.

"There's a full-scale assault on the First Amendment and the press and all we can think of is tangential information of who said what to whom?" Miller said to scattered applause.

Miller said she was "worried about the profession's sinking esteem. There's so much info, they don't know what to believe."

Imagine.

"The American public has read things that haven't been true," she said.

How many of those weapons did Saddam have again?

She said journalists have to get the message out to the public that the proposed federal shield law is "not a privilege for us, it's for them," she said, drawing more applause.

If people think the press can't keep promises of confidentiality, who will talk on serious matters?

A reporter who has covered national security, shared a Pulitzer Prize for a series about al-Qaida and co-authored a book on biological weapons, Miller said "if we don't have those sources, we would only be publishing what the government or business tells us."

Great message. Wrong messenger.

The New York Times spent "millions of dollars" defending her, and Executive Editor Bill Keller put it this way in the paper's Sunday edition: "I wish it had been a clear-cut whistle-blower case. I wish it had been a reporter who came with less public baggage."

In a memo to the Times staff, which was posted on a Web site popular with journalists, Keller said if this happened again, he hoped his "first instinct -- and the paper's -- would still be to defend a reporter in the line of duty, even if the circumstances lack the comfort of moral clarity."

Ouch.

Asked what she thought of how the Times portrayed her, she said she was "glad" the paper made the effort to get her story out.

Although she noted that "there should be a little more charity for those who attempt to inform the public."

Miller said she wanted to address the "wild speculation" in the industry about why she did what she did. She said she's not a partisan, didn't want to get a "big advance" on a book deal, didn't go to prison as part of a "canny career move."

(There's a theory that she did this to try to rehabilitate her image, which has been battered by the belief in some corners that she carried the Bush administration's water with the weapons of mass destruction story.)

She said she didn't want to be a "martyr."

Miller compared her case to Watergate -- the reporters didn't reveal their source until this year when he outed himself -- and the Pentagon Papers case in which secret government documents were leaked.

"That's what it's all about," said Miller, who is scheduled to testify in Congress today about the proposed federal shield law.

But the shield law is a tough sell, especially for Miller and especially at a time when the public doesn't have much respect for the media.

Adam Clymer, a New York Times Washington correspondent, told the Washington Post that people in the newsroom had questions and concerns about the way the Times handled the situation.

"It wasn't that they knew the defense of Judy was wrong," he said, "but they didn't have a sense of what was being defended."

If it's not making sense inside The New York Times, that's a real problem.

Matt Hufman can be reached at 259-2322 or [email protected]

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