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Thursday, October 20, 2005

Waiting for Judy

As I sat sipping hot tea in the small boardroom at the conference center of the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas on Tuesday morning, I began rehashing the events that led to this moment.

About six weeks ago, I got a call from Joe Skeel, editor of SPJ’s Quill magazine asking if I would be willing to cover a couple of stories about the convention. One, of course, would be about Judy Miller. But at that time, she was still in jail for not revealing the name of confidential source and her appearance at the convention was not likely.

In a twist, however, she was released from prison after agreeing to testify before the federal grand jury. About a week and half out from the convention I received an e-mail saying, “Judy Miller is in.” Suddenly I had a seriously big story on my hands.

The Society was awarding Miller the First Amendment Award for her actions on behalf of protecting her source. It was a controversial award both inside and outside the Society. Miller was going to receive the award, make a short speech and then participate on a panel about the use of confidential sources.

Of course I immediately I asked if I could get a one-on-one with her. I was told they would run it by her but it wasn’t likely. She was swooping in and out and not likely to grant any interviews.

When I approached the registration desk on Sunday afternoon, Chris Vachon, SPJ director of programs and convention mastermind extraordinaire pulled me aside and said that Judy Miller agreed to an interview with Quill — and no one else.

I let out a big, “Woo Hoo!“ The catch, of course, was that I was on standby and had to be ready to go whenever she said, “Now.”

Made for a stressful couple of days, as did the saturation of coverage in both the mainstream media and the blogosphere. On nearly all fronts, Miller was getting crucified. A part of me was sure she would back out. And the media converging on the convention was persistent in attempts to garner interviews.

But she didn’t back out of ours and she didn’t grant them to anyone else. I was told to meet her in the room at 7:15 a.m. Tuesday. The interview was kept hush-hush. The few people who knew what I was doing would come up to me and say, “You should ask her about …”

That continued for two days until my brain could no longer get a handle on exactly what to get from this interview. So in a fit of exhaustion, I slumped down on the floor of the hallway next to Joe Skeel and we hashed strategy. We worked out worst-case scenario and moved on from there.

I was feeling better, but still got up at 5 a.m. to check out what was being written. It was a feeding frenzy and so was our convention. It turned into a media circus when the local Vegas gossip columnist had quoted Chris Vachon as saying, “We’re preparing for the worst” and cited protests being organized outside the hotel by bloggers. (Appparently those protests never materialized.)

With my Starbucks, tape recorder and notes, I tried to clear my mind and focus on what I would ask. This kind of preparation isn’t how I normally interview people. I prefer to wing it, but I felt that simply wasn’t an option in this case. Too many issues, too many expectations.

Ultimately, I felt I had to tie my questions to the Society’s mission. And I would try to interject some personal questions. I mean, how does one handle the lambasting by your profession in such a spectacularly vicious and public way?

But then my cell rang and it was SPJ Associate Executive Director Julie Grimes telling me Miller had to postpone to prepare for her speech. Hurry up and wait. Hurry up and wait. That’s what this endeavor became.

Fellow freelancer/photographer/blogger/newly elected regional director and all-around good guy, Joe Wessels and I convinced the staff to essentially make us staff for the big event. And that got us into the main ballroom and front-row seats before the stampede of hyperactive journalists stormed the ballroom.

There were many delays and pregnant pauses while the packed room awaited Miller’s arrival. Word was that Bruce Sanford, SPJ’s attorney from Baker & Hostetler, was going to ask the questions. It was a dubious format, but the organizers were unsure how to handle a roomful of journalists (many of whom were hostile toward her) clamoring to ask questions. They heard about that later as they also were grilled about why this showcase program was moderated and run by attorneys. (The short answer? They pitched the program idea.)

Scheduled to begin at 8:15, the program didn’t start until 8:45. While I sat taking notes, I was tapped on the shoulder and told to be in Sapphire 1 in 15 minutes. Miller was going to be escorted through the bowels of the Aladdin and I was to await her entry. I had 15 minutes for the interview.

I was sitting the Sapphire 1 room when finally a rush of very large security guards with earpieces and the SPJ brass and lawyers came through the back door with Miller. For a minute I thought I was conducting this interview before a large audience. Thankfully, most of them left the room and the interview was conducted in relative peace.

With that, you’ll have to wait for the November/December issue of Quill magazine to find out what she had to say.


writelife said...

Such a cliff hanger, Wendy! Nov/Dec issue??!!

Lori said...

The story behind the story -- I love it. Congratulations on landing the interview and all going well.