Keller of ‘NYT’ Wants to Turn the Page on Judith Miller Saga (Again)

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By: E&P Staff

In a new feature at The New York Times’ Web site this week, Bill Keller, executive editor, has been responding, at considerable length, to numerous questions from readers, on a wide array of serious topics.

Inevitably, several queries concerning former Times star reporter Judith Miller surfaced, all critical of the paper’s handling of her WMD coverage and/or legal case. After publishing them on Wednesday, Keller’s first word of response was: “Sigh.”

Repeating his previous criticism of some of the paper’s critics, he continued: “I can’t imagine that there is anything to say about the Judy Miller episode that I have not already said, publicly and to The Times staff, over and over. At The Times, as in most of the media-watching world, we have registered the Miller saga as an important cautionary tale, and moved on. But the story has an afterlife in the impending trial of Scooter Libby, and, as our Q&A mailbag demonstrates, the subject has settled into some quarters of the blogosphere as a partisan obsession and an object of grassy-knoll conspiracy theories. The hard-core enthusiasts feed on blogs that have little to offer but harebrained speculation. (And they think Judy Miller was credulous!)….

“The popular narratives don?t allow much room for subtlety. Depending on where you pick up the story, she is the Rosa Parks of the First Amendment, the Tokyo Rose of the Bush-Cheney War Axis or the Typhoid Mary of the New York Times newsroom. In fact, just about everyone who has worked closely with Judy knows that she is a more complicated figure than any of those caricatures allow. Judy has now left The Times, and I have little to add that has not already been copiously covered in the pages of this paper. But — without any hope of quenching the curious thirst of the Miller-obsessed — a few observations.”

Taking up the WMD coverage, he noted that Miller “did not single-handedly take America to war, as some have outlandishly suggested,” though he does not identify those commentators. “Two years ago The Times published a long and painful editors’ note acknowledging the failings of that coverage,” he added, though many complained at the time that it was actually not that long, was published far back in the A section, and was not sufficiently painful.

“As I have said on several occasions,” he continued, “I wish I had prepared that note a year earlier, when I became executive editor. I had a lot of reasons for not doing so, but the bottom line is, by waiting so long I created the impression that we would rather protect an errant reporter than come clean with readers. Mea culpa.”

Keller then detailed some of the Times’ many recent examples of tough reporting on Iraq, including some just this week, before closing: “Finally, whatever one thinks of Judy Miller, her run-in last year with the special counsel, and her 85 days in jail for refusing to disclose a source, that episode was the leading edge of a serious and continuing threat to fearless journalism. Attempts to expose and punish confidential sources of The Times’ recent stories about domestic eavesdropping and the Washington Post stories about secret CIA prisons represent an alarming assault on our ability to explain how the government and other powerful institutions work. This is a subject that should be generating more heat on the Internet than the tired remains of the Judy Miller story.”

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