MEDIA VOICES

‘Little Miss Run Amok’

By Gene Lyons

With everybody in Washington anticipating dramatic, possibly melodramatic, developments in the Valerie Plame CIA leaks investigation, it’s worth noticing what it reveals about the appalling state of American political journalism.

As one with first-hand experience of the odd blend of arrogance, high-handedness and sheer professional incompetence in high places at The New York Times, very little in that newspaper’s coverage of self-dramatizing reporter Judith Miller surprises me.

Shocking yes, surprising no.

In one very limited sense, the Times’ eight-year infatuation with Whitewater was even odder than its naive boosterism about Iraq’s mythical WMDs. No state secrets were involved. Any skeptical reporter with a working brain could deconstruct the coverage. Correct the errors and fill in the blanks, and the Whitewater “scandal” — as even Kenneth Starr eventually had to conclude — basically vanished. Having written two books on the subject (one with Joe Conason), I’ll spare you a rehash.

What surprised me was reporters and editors acting as if they had a property right in an accusatory version of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s ill-fated real estate investment. Evidently, careers were at stake. Critics weren’t treated as rivals, but vandals. After reporters apprenticed themselves to Starr’s leak-o-matic prosecutors, the scandal acquired a life of its own. Even dispositive facts could be pitched into the memory hole to keep it going.

Editors appeared to protect themselves by failing to learn basic facts; also by acting as if the newspaper was, by definition, beyond criticism and above reproach. The essence of it was: “We’re The New York Times, and you’re not.”

Hopefully, Judith Miller’s public pratfall has taught them something. A True Believer, she apprenticed herself to neoconservative dogmatists in the Bush administration intoxicated by their own propaganda and determined to invade Iraq. She took dictation.

Five of the six stories touting Saddam Hussein’s imaginary arsenal that the Times has apologized for carried her byline.

Then after the WMD fantasy started coming apart in the spring of 2003, her White House pals appeared to think they could count on Miller to help trash their enemies: specifically Ambassador Joe Wilson and his wife, covert CIA operative Valerie Plame.

In the Times’ front-page account of Miller’s on-again, off-again, refusal to testify before Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald’s grand jury, editor Bill Keller admits some embarrassment. “I wish it had been a clear-cut whistleblower case,” he said.

I wonder what they’re putting in the water coolers up on West 43rd Street. It wasn’t a whistleblower case at all. It was the exact opposite: the most powerful people in the United States using the press to damage a whistleblower by endangering his wife — something even the Mob won’t do.

Indeed, it’s intriguing to speculate that Joe Wilson, outspoken critic of pre-war propaganda about Iraq’s nuclear weapons programs, wasn’t the leak’s main target. White House apparatchiks may have been more leery of Valerie Plame, a specialist in nuclear proliferation, and her CIA colleagues.

Here’s why: In an interview, “Little Miss Run Amok,” as Miller dubbed herself due to her ability to avoid editorial supervision on her way to fame and glory, admitted what the Times called “serious flaws in her articles on Iraqi weapons.”

“W.M.D. — I got it totally wrong,” she said. “The analysts, the experts and the journalists who covered them — we were all wrong. If your sources are wrong, you are wrong. I did the best job that I could.”

But that’s simply not so. “Infighting Among US Intelligence Agencies Fuels Dispute Over Iraq,” was the headline of an October 2002 article by Knight Ridder’s Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay. It detailed a “bitter feud over secret intelligence” between the CIA and Bush administration appointees at the Pentagon.

“The dispute,” they wrote “pits hardliners long distrustful of the U.S. intelligence community, against professional military and intelligence officers who fear the hawks are shaping intelligence analyses to support their case for invading Iraq.”

In an earlier article with John Walcott, the authors quoted an anonymous official who said, “analysts at the working level in the intelligence community are feeling very strong pressure from the Pentagon to cook the intelligence books.” Nobody they interviewed disagreed.

See, maybe that’s the story Scooter and the country-club toughs in the White House really feared. What’s more, it was always there to be written, but not by Judith Miller or other Washington courtier/journalists who pride themselves more on the quality of their dinner party invitations and TV appearances than their professional skepticism and integrity.

So do I believe that Miller can’t remember who told her “Valerie Flame’s” name? A child wouldn’t believe it. The more clever of my two basset hounds would be suspicious.

The real shame is that absent an aggressive prosecutor, Little Miss Run Amok would still be throwing sharp elbows around the Times newsroom, the public be damned.

  • Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Gene Lyons is a national magazine award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at genelyons@sbcglobal.net.
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