It’s been a rough stretch for Judith Miller.
The New York Times reporter has been sitting in a Virginia jail for the past week for refusing to name her confidential sources to the prosecutor investigating the Bush administration “outing” of CIA undercover agent Valerie Plame.
Now, to compound the indignity, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Miller — one of The Times’s most aggressive stars, a reporter famous for her “sharp elbows” — has become a lightning rod for criticism from partisans of both the left and the right.
In what resembles an especially ironic game of blame the messenger, the reaction to Miller’s imprisonment has thrown into sharp relief the deteriorating position of the press in the highly polarized political environment — as both sides pummel the reporter for her alleged affronts to their worldview, either as an administration shill or a member of the dreaded “liberal media.”
The woman at the center of the controversy might relish the irony of drawing such disparate punches, if only she were in more salubrious quarters. Miller, 57, “is sleeping on a foam mattress on the floor, and her communications are, shall we say, constrained,” New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller wrote in an e-mail exchange with the Los Angeles Times.
Miller was sent to jail by Judge Thomas Hogan for being in contempt of court in the investigation conducted by special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald. Since 2003, Fitzgerald has been trying to determine whether a crime was committed when “high-administration officials” tipped off a number of reporters to the identity of Plame, the wife of former ambassador Joseph Wilson. The ex-ambassador damaged administration claims about Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program when he published an op-ed about his CIA-sponsored trip to Niger, during which he found that the dictator had not purchased uranium there. Miller never wrote a story about Plame, but Fitzgerald demanded she testify nonetheless. In recent days, top Bush adviser Karl Rove has been identified as a source of at least one story that named Plame.
In many ways, Miller has had a remarkable run in being at the center of the story. In 2001, after Miller and colleagues Stephen Engelberg and William Broad published the best-selling “Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War,” an envelope containing a suspicious white powder appeared on Miller’s desk. It turned out to be talcum powder. But coming in the middle of that year’s anthrax attacks, the hoax necessitated a course of antibiotics for Miller and several other staffers. As the Forward wrote in naming Miller one of the 50 most influential Jewish Americans of 2001, “Some journalists are known for going after a story; this year Judith Miller became known when a story went after her.”
In 2003, Miller was embedded with an Army unit that searched unsuccessfully for Saddam’s bio-weapons — and identified much too passionately with its mission, in the minds of some. In 2004, her 2001-2002 stories on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program were the subject of a lengthy Times editor’s note in which the newspaper essentially retracted many of the stories’ claims. In the note’s aftermath, Miller’s irate colleagues fueed a 7,000-word New York magazine profile that featured attacks on her for everything from her ruthless methods to her many boyfriends.
They might be jealous. Miller, who has worked for The Times since 1977, has reveled in posing hard questions and taking tough assignments. Her 1990 book, “One, by One, by One: Facing the Holocaust” examined the way the Holocaust is remembered — and often distorted — in six countries affected by the genocide. “God Has Ninety-nine Names,” published in 1996, turned a searching eye on Islamic extremism, which Miller saw close up in the 1980s during her stint as the first woman heading The Times’s Cairo bureau.
For her trouble, no less of an extremist than Sami Al-Arian, now on trial in Tampa, Fla., for his alleged role as chief financier of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, denounced Miller in a list of “pro-Israeli” writers.
Some partisans on the left see Miller’s incarceration as fitting punishment — not for her actions in the Plame controversy but for her WMD reporting, which critics say breathlessly parroted administration claims, creating a drumbeat in the run-up to the war.
Writing recently in the Los Angeles Times, liberal commentator Rosa Brooks opined, “In the midst of the media’s love-fest for Judith Miller, 1st Amendment Martyr, it’s easy to forget that Miller’s questionable journalistic ethics left her in the doghouse only a year ago.” Brooks suggested that Miller “understood the lesson of the Martha Stewart case: When you find yourself covered with mud, there’s nothing like a brief stint in a minimum-security prison to restore your old luster.”
Blogger “Billmon” of the popular leftist blog Whiskey Bar was even less charitable. “I was glad Judge Hogan locked the bitch up — I only wished he’d thrown the key away,” the blogger wrote, adding, “I want her to pay for what she did… to the American people she helped manipulate.”
Meanwhile, a number of right-wing commentators also say they are happy that Miller is sitting in jail.
Conservative press watchdog Cliff Kincaid, editor of the Accuracy in Media Report, thinks that Miller is covering up her own involvement in Plame’s outing rather than protecting the high principle of the inviolability of the confidential source.
“Speculation is mounting that Miller is protecting herself — that Miller was herself a source of information about Plame that made it to several Bush administration officials and was then recycled to columnist Robert Novak,” Kincaid wrote in a syndicated column titled “Why Judith Miller Should Stay in Jail.”
The Times reacted sharply to Kincaid’s contention. “Ms. Miller learned about Valerie Plame from a confidential source or sources whose identity she continues to protect to this day,” Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis wrote in an e-mail. “If the suggestion is that she is covering up for herself or some fictitious source, that is preposterous. Given that she is suffering in jail, it is also mean spirited.”
Kincaid and other right-wing commentators have enunciated the view that Miller is the unintended victim of the Bush bashing of her employer, The Times — which called for a special counsel to investigate the alleged Plame leak, in right-wing eyes solely because of its hatred of the Bush administration.
“I’m amazed that The Times would editorialize with such fervor for a special counsel in a leak probe and not have the imagination to consider that a special counsel could end up jailing reporters for contempt,” wrote Tim Graham, director of media analysis for the Media Research Center, another conservative media watchdog group, in an e-mail to the Forward.
Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank, said that Miller’s job in reporting on WMD was to “elicit the best thinking inside the administration” in the run-up to the war and “accurately reflect the ingredients of decision-making on the highest level.”
“If anyone has a criticism of the administration, it would be an error to extend the critique to Judy,” he said. “It was her job, and she did it rather well. To suggest that she was a tool of the administration is completely false in my view and totally misses the point of what being a national security correspondent was all about.”
Walter Shapiro, a journalist and a friend of Miller’s, said he’s appalled by the Jacobin-like vitriol Miller has drawn from the left. “Judy is not a 23-year-old. She spent five months embedded in Iraq. If she was an ideologue out to advance an agenda, you can do that from a studio,” he said.
He also noted the glaring absence of Miller defenders on the right. “For all the right-wing conspiracies about the liberal media, I don’t know who she’s protecting, but I’m pretty sure it’s not [Democrats] Howard Dean or Dick Durbin.”
As Miller languishes in jail for the next four months — the term of the grand jury considering the Plame matter — journalism sits in the clink with her.
“Anyone who cares about the future of journalism should care about Judy Miller’s situation and should support her principled stand,” said press critic Vaughn Ververs, editor of The Hotline, Washington’s premier daily political tipsheet, in an e-mail to the Forward. “The unfortunate reality is that journalism itself has taken such a hit in public opinion over the past decade that fewer and fewer Americans are caring about that future.”