judith miller, the NYT, and journalism

from slate: Programming the Slammer Film Festival – Readers choose the most enlightening fare for Judith Miller. By David Edelstein

7/8 update: here’s a couple more good commentaries: avedon carol [sideshow] and Rosa Brooks in the LAT. Money line from Rosa Brooks:

If a source with a clear political motivation passes along classified information that has no value for public debate but would endanger the career, and possibly the life, of a covert agent, is a journalist ethically permitted to “out” the no-good sneak? You bet. And if the knowledge that they can’t always hide behind anonymity has a “chilling effect” on political hacks who are eager to manipulate the media in furtherance of their vested interests, that’s OK with me.


The Forwarding-government-propaganda privilege: Somehow, just not so compelling.

… In the interests of fairness, a few thoughtful pieces on protect-judy side: billmon wrestling with his desire to justify jail for judy … And the Columbia Journalism Review (Jan/Feb 2005) ran a good article outlining the pro-Judith-Miller position and the general threats to the press that have happened of late. The author asks concernedly at the end: Would people rise up in defense of the reporters’ privilege, and reporters, if these two reporters go to jail? And answers his own question: I didn’t think so. The article details (a) various attacks on the “fourth estate” by government in the last few years; and (b) why people distinguish what Judith Miller is doing from what they want to see protected.

… But now that I’m thinking about I just have to get in 2 or 3 more cents: From one perspective, Judith Miller may, indeed, be just another front in a general way by the state on the press. As such, Judith Miller should have been just another footnote, an example of when the RP shouldn’t apply, or why it can go too far, or why good privileges sometimes produce bad results … So the problem is not with Judith Miller invoking a reporters’ privilege & going to jail for it. The problem is that the NYT chose to put forward Judith Miller as the poster-child for the reporters’ privilege, and chose not to profile and highlight and defend the other cases. Hard cases make bad law, as they say. And the NYT chose a hard case to make law on: hard as in not appealing, factually bad, not getting to the essence of why the reporters’ privilege is important. Why did the NYT do that? I think the NYT is trying to make itself look good: Oh, look how we defend freedom of the press.

Putting Judith Miller together with the NYT’s actual reporting on freedom of the press issues, I don’t see a very pretty picture. It looks to me like the NYT ignores the broader issue of reporters’ freedom when it could actually do some good, and instead puts forward the case only when its narrow self-interest is involved. If the NYT was actually interested in freedom of the press, for instance, then why not more coverage and pressure and amicus briefs on behalf of journalists who are protecting sources for important information we needed and otherwise would not have had? Or for that matter, why not more coverage of the record numbers of dead reporters in Iraq? The targeted bombing by the US of Al-Jazeera? Etc. ….

“Now, you say you love me. Well, just to prove, you do, you can cry me a river; I cried a river over you.”

8/12 update:

Another good post on the topic, by Charlie Anders of Other Magazine:

Actually, Anita Bartholomew had it right: the real reason not to give Miller the award is that she was protecting confidential sources who were trying to silence whistleblowers instead of blowing the whistle themselves. It’s a pretty basic distinction, and one the mainstream media seems to have forgotten. Back when I was starting out as a reporter, we were warned to use confidential sources sparingly and to be aware of their agendas if we did use them. If your source works for the government and is pushing the government’s agenda (or ditto for a corporation) then he or she is just a cowardly shill.