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The Enemy Within’: An Exchange

In response to:

The Press: The Enemy Within from the December 15, 2005 issue

To the Editors:

If Michael Massing were himself a responsible journalist, he would have checked Bill Keller’s misstatements before repeating them in your pages [“The Press: The Enemy Within,” NYR, December 15, 2005]. Keller had no reason to regret that he had not “sat [me] down for a thorough debriefing” about my part in the Valerie Plame Wilson investigation. Soon after I was called as a witness in August 2003, I gave the Times lawyers my notes, revealed my source, and answered their many questions in detail. The Times management, including Keller, attended several of these meetings before the Times decided to support my position, which resulted in eighty-five days in jail until Scooter Libby provided the personal waiver on which I insisted and the prosecutor agreed to limit his questions to the Plame case. If Keller was not “thoroughly” briefed at these meetings, the fault is his, not mine.

As for my relations with Libby, they were entirely professional, as Keller eventually acknowledged in his letter to me when I left the Times, correcting his earlier description of that relationship as an “entanglement,” a defamatory insinuation which he later withdrew as Massing could have discovered by reading the Times’s account of my resignation or calling Keller or me. It was in this same letter that Keller grudgingly withdrew his false accusation that I had misled my editor, which Massing also fails to note.

Nor is it true that I acknowledged only on October 16 that some of the WMD stories in Iraq were wrong. The Times provided no opportunity in its pages for me to make this admission earlier. However, I acknowledged that these stories were wrong because my sources were wrong on several well-covered occasions, including an appearance at Berkeley before I went to jail.

Massing should also have been skeptical about Keller’s claim that I kept “drifting back” into national security reporting. Times reporters don’t drift. It was Keller himself who approved my assignment to cover the Oil-for-Food scandal with its links to Iraq and weapons which I covered in nearly fifty articles. I also covered the NYPD counterterrorism effort, again, with the blessing of the Times.

As for the impact of my “change in fortune,” Massing might ask himself how a young reporter might be influenced by my determination to protect a source at the expense of my freedom, only to be assailed by careless scorn from such a bold advocate of journalistic courage as himself.

Finally, publishing an article in which the subject was never called or e-mailed for comment violates all rules of good journalism. I assume the Review thinks of itself as bound by those rules. Or does the virtue of your opinions set you above them?

Judith Miller

New York City

Michael Massing replies:

Judith Miller’s letter leaves the impression that my entire article was devoted to her. In fact, she was the subject of a single paragraph; her own letter is twice as long. In writing that paragraph, I drew on the many thousands of words that Miller has written on every conceivable aspect of this subject and which are posted on her Web site, which I cited, writing, “her comments on her case are available at JudithMiller.org.” As a result, I felt under no obligation to speak to her personally.

In her letter, she reproaches me for failing to note that Bill Keller had withdrawn both his “defamatory insinuation” that she had an “entanglement” with Lewis Libby and his “false accusation” that she had misled her editor. In fact, my article made no mention of either of these charges, and it’s bizarre to see Miller raise them here. I did mention Keller’s regret at not having sat Miller down for a thorough debriefing about her part in the Plame investigation—a sentiment he has not withdrawn. Ken Auletta, in an article in the December 19, 2005, issue of The New Yorker, cites Miller’s own lawyer, Robert Bennett, as saying that he was “astonished” that Keller and Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. had not inspected Miller’s notebook from her interview with Lewis Libby before deciding to resist the Patrick Fitzgerald subpoena. “How could the Times have embarked on this venture without knowing all the facts?” Bennett is quoted as saying. If Miller has a complaint on this point, it’s with Keller, not me.

Auletta also asked Keller about his claim that Miller kept drifting back on her own into the national security realm. Keller described an extraordinary call he received from Miller in 2004 in which she said she was in the house of Iraqi exile Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, who had been a source for one of Miller’s “discredited WMD stories,” as Keller put it. The man was about to be deported and Miller wanted to write about it. Astonished, Keller told her to leave the man’s house. This, he told Auletta, was a case of someone “who was way too invested in her sources.” (Miller, Auletta adds, refused to comment on the incident.)

Contrary to Miller’s belief, the public is not breathlessly following her every public appearance. The one in Berkeley was not widely covered. Listening to a webcast of the event, I nowhere heard Miller say she had gotten the WMD story wrong. When asked if she had “any misgivings” about her coverage, she said no. “I think I did the best possible job I could,” she observed. She also said that “when I think back about what happened in that period up to the war, we learned after the fact about certain people who had reservations about the intelligence—I wish they had come forward at the time to express those reservations.” Yet, as I reported in the February 26, 2004, issue of The New York Review, David Albright, a former weapons inspector who had been a source of Miller’s in the past, did contact her immediately after a story appeared on the front page of the Times on September 8, 2002, in which Miller and Michael Gordon had reported that Iraq had sought to obtain aluminum tubes as part of an effort to revive its nuclear program. Albright told Miller that a number of nuclear experts doubted that the tubes were intended for such use. Yet Miller, in a story that appeared several days later, dismissed these reservations in a few scornful lines.

Miller’s oft-repeated defense that she was wrong on WMD “because my sources were wrong” ignores the fact that it’s a key part of a journalist’s job to assess the credibility of those sources. In a new book titled Feet to the Fire: The Media After 9/11—a collection of interviews with journalists by Kristina Borjesson—Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel of Knight Ridder, who wrote a number of stories questioning the administration’s claims on WMD, note that they found many government sources who were skeptical about those claims. “There were some very senior people who had serious problems with the case that was being made,” Landay observed. “Serious problems. That was the story.” John Walcott, their editor, noted that “you didn’t have to go very far to find people who had doubts.” Miller seems never to have sought out such people.

As Miller was preparing to go to jail, I was quoted in The Washington Post as saying that “I think it’s horrendous that she could go to jail, regardless of whatever journalistic shortcomings she’s guilty of.” After she did go to jail, I helped draft a statement of support for her as a board member of the Committee to Protect Journalists. It’s extraordinary that, just five weeks after she left jail—a period in which she was vigorously defended by her publisher and in fourteen Times editorials—Miller, as a result of the deep hostility toward her at the Times, had to leave the paper after having worked there for twenty-eight years. If that doesn’t qualify as a change of fortune, I don’t know what does.

To the Editors:

In his article [“The End of News?” NYR, December 1, 2005] Michael Massing places me in the company of Spiro Agnew and Reed Irvine as right-wing media bashers. He also describes the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) as “a research institute that, while presenting itself as nonpartisan, sought to document instances of liberal [media] bias” as part of a Republican war against the press. As evidence he notes that we released a survey showing that national media journalists are mainly socially liberal Democrats, and that we received grants from the conservative Olin and Scaife foundations.

This evidence is true but highly incomplete. For example, our findings on journalists’ attitudes have been echoed by surveys conducted by such organizations as Gannett, the Los Angeles Times, and the Pew Foundation. Does anyone still doubt the validity of this portrait? Further, our studies of news content have challenged conservative media criticism on such hot-button topics as abortion, affirmative action, and political partisanship. In fact, our report that Bill Clinton got much worse press than George H.W. Bush—before the so-called Clinton scandals—garnered widespread publicity.

Similarly, CMPA has been supported by Scaife and Olin, but also by the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation, Natural Resources Defense Council, Pew Charitable Trusts, and National Council of La Raza. Our work has been praised publicly by Hillary Clinton, Joe Lieberman, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, and the late Paul Wellstone. And our findings have been cited favorably in The Nation, the Utne Reader, and Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11.

Thus, our studies produce results that sometimes please conservatives and other times please liberals. But they derive from recognized social scientific methods and are vetted by the academic peer review process. Our research has been published in numerous scholarly journals that run the gamut from the American Political Science Review and the Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics to Nature and the Journal of the American Medical Association, as well as by the Yale and Oxford university presses.

This is not to say that our work is beyond criticism, but that it deserves to be evaluated on its merits and not dismissed because its findings are sometimes ideologically inconvenient. Besides, why would a right-wing media-bashing outfit give its press criticism award to Michael Massing for his Nation article debunking Judith Miller’s credulous reporting on the threat posed by WMDs?

S. Robert Lichter

President

Center for Media and Public Affairs

George Mason University

Fairfax, Virginia

Michael Massing replies:

In my article, I described how the Center for Media and Public Affairs was set up with conservative foundation money in the mid-1980s as part of a growing effort by the right to portray the American press as liberal and out of touch with mainstream America. In a phone conversation, Robert Lichter acknowledged to me that the center’s funding in its initial years came almost entirely from conservative sources, with Olin and Smith Richardson in the lead. Beginning in 1991, the center became a regular beneficiary of two foundations controlled by the very conservative Scaife family. According to mediatransparency.org, CMPA since 1986 has received $1,172,000 from Scaife, $730,000 from Olin, and $417,000 from Smith Richardson. The other institutions Lichter cites became supporters much later, and their contributions have been dwarfed by those from these highly conservative groups. It’s also worth noting that, at the time Lichter was setting up CMPA, he was a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Furthermore, a survey of the articles that Lichter wrote in the period under discussion shows that they were overwhelmingly—indeed, almost exclusively—conservative in orientation. In contributions to The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial pages, for instance, Lichter condemned the press for writing too negatively about nuclear energy, too favorably about Anita Hill (a reflection of “the growing influence of feminists at major media outlets”), too critically about Dan Quayle, and too much about the homeless (a “blueprint of advocacy journalism”).

In a column attacking the Columbia Journalism Review for being an “advocate of advocacy media,” Lichter wrote that “without espousing an overt ideological mission, any work of criticism can unconsciously reflect an ideological perspective. This can be reflected in the choice of subject matter, the focus of investigation or the types of criticism leveled.” His “main finding,” Lichter added, “is not that CJR’s criticisms are incorrect but that they are one-sided.” This would seem to apply to Lichter’s own organization. For many years, the only bias it ever found in the press was of a liberal variety. As Lichter told me, at one point he became uncomfortable with CMPA’s highly conservative image and so began working to appear more evenhanded. Whether he has succeeded or not would take another article to assess, but my account of the origins of his organization stands.

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