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'Times' report: Miller called her own shots

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Just two years after the Jayson Blair scandal tarred its reputation, The New York Times finds its internal actions under scrutiny again after publishing its own examination Sunday of circumstances behind reporter Judith Miller being jailed for 85 days.

Critics praised the newspaper for turning the spotlight on itself. "While the piece hardly clarifies everything, the Times should be praised for its candor," said Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

But they said key questions remain about why Miller chose to go to jail rather than reveal her source to a grand jury investigating the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame during the ramp-up to the Iraq war.

Miller "comes away from this heavily damaged and not some sort of heroine of the First Amendment," said Harvard media analyst Alex Jones, a former Times reporter.

He and others found Miller's personal account, also published Sunday, confusing and ambiguous. They questioned why Miller was allowed such latitude in guiding the Times in the latest battle between the media and the government.

"If you read between the lines, in a dry and subtle way, (the Times report) raises tremendous concerns about the leadership at the paper," said Greg Mitchell of Editor & Publisher magazine. "Miller basically hijacked the newspaper."

A Times spokeswoman said Sunday that Miller declined to be interviewed and that Times editor Bill Keller was out of the country.

In its front-page story, the Times paints a picture of Miller as a reporter who called her own shots, much to the consternation of colleagues, especially after her string of stories on Iraq supposedly having weapons of mass destruction turned out to be wrong.

But Miller never wrote a story about Plame, the figure in question. Plame's identity was revealed in a 2003 article by columnist Robert Novak. A federal prosecutor has been investigating who outed Plame, which was viewed as retaliation for critical remarks made by Plame's husband, diplomat Robert Wilson, against the White House.

Novak hasn't said whether he has gone before the grand jury, though other journalists, such as NBC's Tim Russert and Time magazine's Matt Cooper, have testified.

The Times report said the newspaper's reputation has suffered. "Neither The Times nor its cause has emerged unbruised. ... Even as the paper asked for the public's support, it was unable to answer its questions." Asked what she regretted about the Miller case, a top editor, Jill Abramson, told the newspaper, "The entire thing."

Mitchell said Miller's and the Times' role in the campaign to prove that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction are integral to this saga, and the full story has yet to be told. "The Times was humiliated by her coverage and has been ever since," he said.

In her own account, Miller appeared to go out of her way to explain certain actions by the man she later revealed as her source, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, an aide to Vice President Cheney.

The newspaper said Times management stood firmly behind Miller, at the cost of millions of dollars, and also followed her lead on the legal aspect of the case. This was despite Keller having removed Miller from the Iraq story but later finding that Miller was still on it.

Miller is "an intrepid reporter whom editors found hard to control," the newspaper said. A former editor, Douglas Frantz, said Miller once jokingly called herself "Miss Run Amok" and quoted her as saying, "I can do whatever I want."

"I think a lot of people might think that from a management standpoint, the Times looks really strange," Rosenstiel said. "You have an employee who you say cannot cover a story, Iraq. She continues to do so despite your instructions. Then she puts the company at legal and public risk by doing so.

"Then, when she embroils you in a legal tangle over the matter, instead of monitoring the situation as closely as possible, you put the discretion nearly entirely in her hands. You do not know what's in her notes. And when you believe you are backing her because she is defending a principle, she then brings in a second attorney. To people outside journalism all this looks just weird," Rosenstiel said.

While management rushed to Miller's defense, staffers were divided over her and frustrated that the newspaper was getting scooped on its own story.

The Times account painted a picture of an uncooperative Miller when it came to its report. It said she "generally would not discuss her interactions with editors, elaborate on the written account of her grand jury testimony or allow reporters to review her notes."

Two weeks ago, Miller told a grand jury that Libby had mentioned Wilson's wife, though not by name. This came after Miller sought the help of her private attorney -- Washington power lawyer Robert Bennett, not noted First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams, who represented her for the Times. Bennett reached out to Libby and got an assurance that he was freely waiving his confidentiality.

Jones said a "very important principle, protecting a source, has been mixed up in an array of other less-worthy issues and complications that could embolden prosecutors and discredit journalists."

But Paul Levinson, a Fordham University professor, said it could result in a federal shield law to protect reporters and sources. "All the hand-wringing misses the most enduring truth: It is wrong to jail a reporter for protecting sources, including flawed reporters. When the dust clears, journalists and newsrooms will be emboldened and Miller's reputation will be transformed."


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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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