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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Seeking accountability in reporting

Tonight is the second installment of Frontline's "News War" program, a continuation of "Secrets, Sources and Spin." You won't get the full scope of the program unless you check out the extended interviews on the Web site. Some of the more candid moments are found in the transcripts of conversations with journalists such as Seymour Hersh, Dana Priest, Ron Suskind, James Risen and even Josh Wolf.

In the days following the first installment the discussion board was rife with criticisms pointed at Frontline in particular and journalism in general. Consider this from a Scottsdale, Ariz., writer who calls the program a "whitewash":
"The press, including Frontline, is grossly incompetent and saying "Oh, we made a mistake" does (not) make anyone suddenly competent or change the situation. Oh, mea culpa, we followed the New York Times and we should not have. Yuch. The press does not question anything and is incapable of doing so. Current example: Defense Secretary Gates alleges that weapons are clearly coming from Iran because they have "Iranian serial numbers." What the heck is an Iranian serial number? Why did no one question him?"

To be fair, a number of the more recent comments were highly favorable of the reporting in the program, with a number expressing outrage at having been duped to such devastating ends.

The sharpest criticism on the discussion board, however, was directed at Judith Miller, who was labeled a ditz and a shill for the Bush Administration. Many questioned giving her a platform, though the argument can be made that she is (for better or worse) a big reason why we're having this conversation.

One writer did ponder why the lesser-known journalists whose reporting demonstrated skepticism about the administration's claims in the build-up to the war were not featured more prominently. That's a fair question. Do we really need to see more of those who are regulars on cable news in addition to the front pages of the national papers?

If they were setting the agenda for coverage at their agenda-setting news organizations, doesn't the public deserve to hear from those who bucked their lead and actually questioned the reasons for going to war? Shouldn't we also hear from that great anonymous herd of journalists trying to do the story justice without the superstar asterisk next to their byline?

We heard in the first episode about reporters from Knight-Ridder's Washington Bureau challenging the administration's rationale for war in Iraq, but we didn't hear directly from the reporters who did the work and faced veiled threats by the administration.

We're seeing some of this all over again as the New York Times allows Michael Gordon (Judith Miller's cohort on WMD reporting) to cover the saber-rattling about Iran. Which brings up today's point: In all of this blame directed at how journalists do their job, the reality is that layers of editors permitted the mediocrity. Just as they receive praise for courageous decisions (such as running the CIA black prison site story), they also deserve blame for not questioning sourcing or for not demanding to know the source of the sourcing. Wasn't Gordon's credibility on national security reporting permanently damaged by his work with Miller? Why allow him to continue covering the beat? And don't tell me it's because of his source network. I think we've already established that it is "less than."

Over a year ago I wrote the following analysis for Quill magazine laying the blame for the Judith Miller saga at the feet of NYT editors.

Quill Magazine / December 2005 Analysis
Seeking accountability in the Miller saga

By Wendy A. Hoke

Prosecutors will tell you that they don’t get to choose the victims they represent. Sometimes those victims come with baggage that makes them appear unsympathetic. Yet prosecutors will work the case because they’re charged with prosecuting crimes, not representing palatable victims.

Such is the case of New York Times reporter Judith Miller. She spent 85 days in jail to defend the principle of protecting confidential sources in the course of doing her job. It was an important stand given the federal prosecutors’ propensity to issue subpoenas to reporters to share what they know about federal wrongdoing.

The leadership of the Society of Professional Journalists believed that her stand should be recognized with a First Amendment Award. Despite criticism that arose both inside and outside the Society, SPJ honored her at its national convention in Las Vegas in October.

Miller’s scripted-like responses to prepared questions lobbed at her not by SPJ attendees but by a trusted legal colleague exposed Miller to be a flawed journalist, who looked more like an exposed nerve ending than the anti-Christ of reportage.

This perceived vulnerability fails to mitigate the fact that she has engaged in some questionable behavior that smacks of high-powered favoritism on the one extreme and sheer laziness on the other, as evidenced by her over-reliance on confidential sources and willingness to capitulate to misleading attribution.

The lesson, particularly for the young members of SPJ, is to beware of the excesses that can bring a superstar reporter to his or her knees. And beware the newsroom that breeds such a poisonous culture.

While there are a number of troubling aspects to this story, they don’t all fall at the feet of Judith Miller. Behind every reporter is a cadre of editors that assign and edit stories before publishing.

Why didn’t her editors more carefully supervise her? It defies logic that editors at The New York Times would allow any reporter, particularly one covering national security, to “run amok.”

But run amok Miller did and no one seemed to be willing to stop her. That has left the industry wondering, “Why wasn’t she stopped?” And this question will continue to dog and damage our industry until the Times answers.

The buck stops with the editor who must demand transparency in sourcing in order to provide readers with critical information.

Miller asserted that her case is being confused with the combustible issue of why we went to war in Iraq, arguably the fundamental foreign policy issue of our time.

Her defense of the inaccurate reporting on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction goes up like Harriett Miers’ nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. “My sources were wrong and so my reporting was wrong,” she told the Vegas crowd.

It was a preposterous statement to make to a roomful of journalists and serves to make her look like nothing more than a shill for her sources.

There were plenty who did question the Bush Administration’s assertions on WMD, as is evidenced by the number of links to those stories out on the blogosphere.

Miller may be able to pass that don’t-blame-the-messenger drivel on to the general public, but journalists preach and practice that you verify information provided by your sources before you go to print.

Miller knows better, and so does the Times.

There’s a reason journalists push for information—so that we get the story right. In the absence of answers, we’re left to question how the Times operates.

Did Miller have any kind of security clearance?

What were the conditions of that clearance?

Did her editors know and agree to those conditions?

Did she think her sources were talking to her or to the Times?

Has the Times articulated a clear policy on the ownership of reporters’ notes?

Didn’t Miller have an obligation to turn over what she knew to the reporter who replaced her on the national security beat?

In the absence of answers, The Gray Lady looks more like a charwoman covered in the soot of the Miller debacle than the stately newspaper of record.

© Copyright 2005 / Wendy A. Hoke

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