Okrent Column Hits Judith Miller, After She Plays 'Hardball'

By: William E. Jackson Jr. Last Sunday, Judith Miller revealed, on Chris Matthews? MSNBC program ?Hardball,? that sources had informed her that U.S. officials were, once again, "reaching out" to her old friend, disgraced former Iraqi exile leader Ahmad Chalabi, even pushing for a major post-election cabinet post. It is clear, however, that the New York Times reporter committed a serious professional and public relations blunder in the "Hardball" interview. On Sunday, Daniel Okrent, the public editor at The Times, took Miller and the newspaper to the woodshed in his column, titled "Talking on the Air and Out of Turn."

Okrent wrote: "To anyone who has tried to follow the jagged contours of Ahmad Chalabi's connections to the Bush administration, Miller's statement was a shocker. This piece of news hadn't appeared in The Times that morning; it didn't appear in The Times the next morning. ... But if you watched 'Hardball' and saw Judith Miller identified as a reporter for The New York Times, you would have every reason to think she was speaking with the authority of the paper."

He continued: "Judging by their absence from the paper, one must conclude that either Miller's Chalabi revelations were wrong or unsubstantiated or that The Times is suppressing an important piece of news. If the first, the paper has suffered a blow to its credibility. ... If there's an act of suppression going on, the price is of course incalculable.

?But I don't remotely think that is the case. I've been able to determine with a very high degree of confidence that editors in the two departments most likely to have an interest in Miller's Chalabi assertions were unaware of them."

What was the reaction of Miller's boss? Executive editor Bill Keller declined to discuss the matter, telling Okrent: "I'm sorry to be unhelpful on this one, but Judy faces a serious danger of being sent to jail for protecting a confidential source. I think this is not the time to be drawn into unrelated public discussions of Judy."

What one problem (the Chalabi disclosure) had to do with the other (the Valerie Plame probe) no doubt left more than one reader reeling.

The Times ombudsman, in any case, countered: "Surely the top editors understand how publicity that can undermine reader trust is the worst kind of publicity a newspaper can get. ... The only way The Times is going solve this problem is by making it a practice to regulate its reporters' appearances, and letting the paper -- the reason everyone's here -- speak for itself."

Then, the trump card: "They need to enforce a policy ensuring that no staff member will 'say anything on radio, television or the Internet that could not appear under his or her byline in The Times.' Should be easy: those words are directly from the paper's 'Ethical Journalism' handbook."

A Times? colleague of Miller?s expressed to me this week his own reaction to the ?Hardball? interview: ?Argh! Not surprisingly, there?s a lot of outrage? over it.

Let it be noted that it is not just Miller who is pushing for Chalabi again at the Times. In October, the op-ed page was used as a platform by Bartle Breese Bull to argue that rebel leader Moktada al-Sadr and Chalabi -- described as the "Alexander and Aristotle" of Iraqi politics -- are the ticket for the future of democratic government in Baghdad. Again, on January 31, the same British author, a friend of the Chalabi family, was allowed to quote the man himself: "Regional autonomy will not tear Iraq apart.?

Miller?s description of Chalabi's up and downs on ?Hardball? brought to mind what another reporter said to me last year concerning Miller's own remarkable rehabilitation, following The Times? May 2004 belated confession of shoddy reporting on WMD in Iraq: ?We marvel at the phoenix-like phenomenon.?

Without citing the names of reporters, the editors' mea culpa had stated that many of the stories the Times published during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq shared a common feature: ?They depended at least in part on information from a circle of Iraqi informants, defectors and exiles bent on 'regime change' in Iraq, people whose credibility has come under increasing public debate. ... Administration officials now acknowledge that they sometimes fell for misinformation from these exile sources. So did many news organizations,? in particular, the Times.

The most prominent of those exiles was Ahmad Chalabi. The most prolific chronicler of Chalabi's views and those of the Iraqi National Congress had been, of course, investigative reporter Judith Miller. She had written, or co-written, several of the "problematic" stories Times editors cited.

Now, in 2005, on TV, she cites unnamed sources and claims that the Bush Administration has recently made "belated and sudden outreaches" to Ahmad Chalabi "to offer him expressions of cooperation and support."

This comes after a lengthy period where Miller has been transformed, in some quarters, from a WMD embarrassment into a First Amendment martyr because of her stance in the Plame case. More on Miller and the Plame case in Part II of this column.


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