If silence is a virtue, bloggers are all vice. With that in mind I don’t think I have too much to add to the new round of revelations, confessions and reflections issuing forth from the NY Times other than to say that we finally seem to be getting a candid and unvarnished discussion and accounting for what happened, either in the paper’s own pages (like Public Editor Calame’s piece today, sub. req.) or nearly so (as in the now-widely-published Keller memo).
The central matter here is that Judy Miller appears to have been fully honest neither with her readers nor with her employers and editors. And for reasons perhaps better described by novelists and psychologists than journo-ethicists, those supervisors became both her victims and her accomplices, abetting and covering up those sins for years.
Let me just add one other question that might be added to this debate. And that is whether there is some degree to which the Times’ (and other similarly situated papers, but very few) role as privileged recipient of ‘official’ leaks might have played a role in landing the paper in this mess.
Consider the very different records of the Times and the Washington bureau of Knight-Ridder in covering the WMD story.
Leaks come in many flavors. But we can chart two broad categories. In one falls leaks rooted in individual motivations of conscience, cattiness or revenge, dogged reporting or long-standing relationships between sources and reporters. In another are those leaks best termed ‘official’, in which the government itself decides to put out a story, but does so through leaks rather than officially. The latter variety is fraught with danger.
The New York Times is one of an extraordinarily small number of news outlets (probably fewer than you have fingers on one hand) that gets those calls. And with respect to my friends at the Times, you routinely find articles in the paper that began with just that sort of unique and privileged acccess — and in far too many cases, ended there. We seem now to be moving quickly toward the consensus opinion that Judy Miller was the proverbial bad apple. But the WMD fiasco isn’t the only mess the Times has found itself in in the last decade. Nor was she alone responsible for that one. And I think this broader institutional problem for elite news outlets — being the go-to recipients for ‘official’ leaks — deserves more attention.