Thursday, November 10, 2005

In the comments to an earlier post, Tom at Daai Tou Laam Diary urged me to read this extended Washington Post interview with Judy Miller. Thanks, Tom. The article's fun.

Or at least it is at first:

She answers questions -- or refuses. She turns the tables, asking about her interviewer's life. She takes calls. She grabs the tape recorder. She waxes eloquent, even in anger. At times, tears well up. There's something frantic about her -- not vulnerable, mind you, for that's the last thing she is.

"Oh. I've got to take this." She's reaching for the phone again. "It's my lawyer."

You want to reach through the monitor and hand her a Ritalin.

But Miller is eloquent in her own defense, or at least voluble. And as the interview continues, it's clear we're looking at the groundwork for her possible rehabilitation in the not-too-distant future.

Her style is indeed "pushy," as she herself suggested. But would an aggressive, high-decibel male reporter be embroiled in all the controversy in which Miller finds herself? It is a question that some of her friends raise, for they believe that part of the invective swirling around Miller has to do with gender bias.

"A man is tough and hard-driving and a woman is a bitch," says Patricia Cohen, the Times theater editor (and former Washington Post staffer), who is a friend of Miller's.

Look, I don't know about the newsroom at the Times, but in my world, yes, a tough, hard-driving, toe-trampling woman might be called a bitch. But a tough, hard-driving, toe-trampling man would almost certainly be called an asshole. Separate? Yes, but reasonably close to equal.

Miller's emotional excesses are defended:

[Leslie] Gelb, then a national security writer at the Times, remembers Miller for her "frantic pursuit of stories," he says. "It was kind of endearingly frantic. She was just so driven to go get good stories, and she was working all the time."

(I have to admit that this aspect of the standard critique of Miller, while great fun, does touch on sexist stereotypes; we'd all probably do well to jettison it.)

She denies a damning anecdote from an ex-colleague, firmly if not very convincingly:

Adam Clymer, retired political correspondent for the Times, recalls an episode during the 1988 presidential campaign, when Miller was deputy Washington bureau chief.

Then the political editor based in New York, Clymer was awakened just after midnight one morning by a call from Miller, he says. She was demanding that a story about Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis be pulled from the paper.

The story was too soft, she complained -- and said Lee Atwater, the political strategist for Vice President George H.W. Bush, believed it was soft as well. Clymer said he was stunned to realize that Atwater apparently had either seen the story or been told about it before publication. He and Miller argued, he recalls, and he ultimately hung up on her, twice.

To Clymer, it was an indication of what he and others believe is Miller's main problem.

"She had gotten too close to her sources," he says.

But Miller denies the episode happened.

"I doubt I would have said that," she says sardonically, "because it wouldn't have been a winning argument."

By the end we've gotten this message: if her emotional cup sometimes runneth over and if she sometimes gets too close to a story, it may be OK, because as a result she's effective and dogged -- and precisely because of her M.O. she has unique insight into the profound dangers facing the West after 9/11: her reporting, there was something else on which Miller relied as much, if not more: her personal belief in the danger that Saddam Hussein posed to the world.

It was personal, for she had been detained for a day by Hussein's security forces back in the 1980s, she says. And it was personal because, as she writes in her 1996 book on Islam, "God Has Ninety-Nine Names," an Iraqi source once told her "that I was on a very short list of writers who are considered the regime's 'eternal enemies.' "...

And so fighting him, fighting his terror, became a passion. Fighting chemical and biological threats became a passion. Fighting al Qaeda became a passion.

"I hope to God that I'm wrong. I hope to God that not another American ever dies in a terrorist attack. But I would take no comfort. I would be heartsick to have to say I told you so.

"But I will make no apologies for my continuous commitment, my desire to pursue stories about threats to our country," she says emphatically, almost frantically, her crusading eyes brimming with tears.

I'm counting the days until the Right starts mounting a defense of Miller that builds on these arguments. The Right has given her a wide berth up to now, believing, I guess, that everyone who writes for the hated New York Times is evil and that all journalists in the "MSM," not just Miller, belong in prison. Fighting for a shield law probably also persuades rightists that she's a liberal and thus an enemy of decent people everywhere. But she believed Saddam had WMDs and ties to al-Qaeda! And now she's been given the boot by the evil Times! I'll be shocked if that doesn't make her a right-wing hero soon.

Perhaps the faux-feminists of the Independent Women's Forum will declare themselves outraged because she's been accused of sleeping with Scooter Libby -- even though Bill Keller's words to Miller don't say anything about sex. In fact, this is a criticism a lot of us have made regarding the entirety of the mainstream political press -- that reporters get too close to powerful sources, that they'd rather maintain access than uncover the truth, that many of them giggle and blush when Bush gives them nicknames. We may sneeringly accuse this or that (usually male and straight) reporter of a "crush" on Bush or some other powerful figure, but we're not saying, for instance, that the many, many reporters who've portrayed Bush as "likable" since the winter of 1999-2000 have been having sex with the man.

But that'll be ignored, if I'm right about this, and Miller will be defended as a victim of liberals who pretend to be feminists but mount vicious attacks on any woman who challenges what they hold sacrosanct (just like the liberal phonies who abandoned Paula Jones when she threatened Clinton!). Miller's reporting can also be defended by the Right -- the right still insists Saddam had WMDs up to the end, and that the al-Qaeda ties were extensive. And obviously Miller can be portrayed as one more victim of Patrick Fitzgerald's "witch hunt."

Maybe this will never happen, but if it does, remember I told you so.

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