Debate Over Judith Miller, 'New York Times' Deepens

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Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, discusses criticism of New York Times reporter Judith Miller and the paper's editorial process and policies.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Indictments could come any day now as special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald wraps up his investigation into who leaked the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame to reporters. Meantime, there's a remarkably public airing of dirty linen going on at The New York Times. The paper staunchly defended its reporter Judith Miller as she went to jail for 85 days rather than reveal her source.

Now key voices at the paper are turning against her. This weekend the paper's public editor, Byron Calame, criticized what he called Miller's `journalistic shortcuts.' The executive editor, Bill Keller, has said if he'd known the details of Judy's entanglement with White House aide Lewis Libby, he'd have been more careful in how the paper articulated its defense. And Times columnist Maureen Dowd minced no words on Sunday in a column headlined Woman of Mass Destruction. Dowd wrote, `If Judith Miller returns to covering threats to the United States,' quote, `"the institution most in danger would be the newspaper in your hands."'

Well, joining us to discuss all this is former New York Times reporter Alex Jones. He's now director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.

Thanks for being with us.

Mr. ALEX JONES (Director, Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, Harvard University): Glad to be with you.

BLOCK: And, Alex, explain how The Times goes from being a paper that publishes 15 editorials defending Judith Miller to one that, now that she's out of jail, seems to be raking her over the coals a bit.

Mr. JONES: I can understand why this would be complicated and confusing to the public, but there're actually two separate questions. The one was Judy Miller's personal decision to honor a promise that she made to a source. And The New York Times, I think very fittingly and appropriately, backed her on that. I think that the fact that she was willing to go to jail to protect a source is something that every journalist in America should be very proud of and that Judy should get all credit for.

But to come out, in the wake of her leaving jail, and testifying before the grand jury is a much more complicated and revealing sense of how she did her job. And how she did her job included being someone who put too much trust in the confidential sources that gave her information that supported the idea that there were weapons of mass destruction leading up to the war in Iraq. This really goes back to that.

BLOCK: Alex, here's something that's confusing to me. The problems that you're talking about with Judith Miller's reporting on weapons of mass destruction, these have been known for some time. Nothing has changed there in the last few weeks. So why this pivot from defending Judy Miller, defending her in court, allowing her to go to jail and now to be so scrupulously going over everything she's done?

Mr. JONES: In my opinion, it has to do with the perception that Judy, when she testified before the grand jury, appeared in some respects to be protecting Scooter Libby. And the question is: What is Judy Miller's relationship with the Bush administration? She now says that it was--absolutely she had no relationship with Scooter Libby except as a source, and that very well may be. But my point is that Judy's relationship with the Bush administration is the key here in terms of her credibility.

BLOCK: Do you think that Judith Miller should have a reporting role in the future at The New York Times?

Mr. JONES: I don't think that anyone should be, you know, ready to pass judgment on her quite yet. I think that she deserves the opportunity to defend herself in a way that's meaningful, meaning with the editors of The New York Times when all the information is there and when she can be, you know, open and direct in what she did and what she did not do, and the reporters and editors of The New York Times can be reassured that they know exactly what was going on and got to the bottom.

BLOCK: You do have a number of editors at The New York Times now, though, who are saying, `Judith Miller basically lied to us as this investigation went along. She did not tell us the truth.'

Mr. JONES: You're right. But I think that that, again, is something that ought to be part of this larger look at the whole situation, and then let the editors decide. We, as readers of The New York Times, and, really, the institution of The New York Times owes it to itself to have that inquiry and to then let people know where things stand.

BLOCK: Alex Jones, thanks very much.

Mr. JONES: Thank you.

BLOCK: Alex Jones used to cover the press for The New York Times. He's now director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.

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