The past few months have witnessed a striking change in the fortunes of two well-known journalists: Anderson Cooper and Judith Miller. CNN’s Cooper, the one-time host of the entertainment show The Mole, who was known mostly for his pin-up good looks, hip outfits, and showy sentimentality, suddenly emerged during Hurricane Katrina as a tribune for the dispossessed and a scourge of do-nothing officials. He sought out poor blacks who were stranded in New Orleans, expressed anger over bodies rotting in the street, and rudely interrupted Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu when she began thanking federal officials for their efforts. When people “listen to politicians thanking one another and complimenting each other,” he told her, “you know, I got to tell you, there are a lot of people here who are very upset, and very angry, and very frustrated.” After receiving much praise, Cooper in early November was named to replace Aaron Brown as the host of CNN’s NewsNight.
By then, Judith Miller was trying to salvage her reputation. After eighty-five days in jail for refusing to testify to the grand jury in the Valerie Plame leak case, she was greeted not with widespread appreciation for her sacrifice in protecting her source but with angry questions about her relations with Lewis Libby and her dealings with her editors, one of whom, Bill Keller, said he regretted he “had not sat her down for a thorough debriefing” after she was subpoenaed as a witness. The controversy revived the simmering resentment among her fellow reporters, and many Times readers, over her reporting on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. In the Times’s account, published on October 16, Miller acknowledged for the first time that “WMD—I got it totally wrong.” Bill Keller said that after becoming the paper’s executive editor in 2003, he had told Miller that she could no longer cover Iraq and weapons issues, but that “she kept drifting on her own back into the national security realm.” For her part, Miller insisted that she had “cooperated with editorial decisions” and expressed regret that she was not allowed to do follow-up reporting on why the intelligence on WMD had been so wrong; on November 8, she agreed to leave the Times after twenty-eight years at the paper.1
These contrasting tales suggest something about the changing state of American journalism. For many reporters, the bold coverage of the effects of the hurricane, and of the administration’s glaring failure to respond effectively, has helped to begin making up for their timid reporting on the existence of WMD. Among some journalists I’ve spoken with, shame has given way to pride, and there is much talk about the need to get back to the basic responsibility of reporters, to expose wrongdoing and the failures of the political system. In recent weeks, journalists have been asking more pointed questions at press conferences, attempting to investigate cronyism and corruption in the White House and Congress, and doing more to document the plight of people without jobs or a place…
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