Review: Judith Miller’s ‘The Story: A Reporter’s Journey’
by Terry McDermott, The New York Times
APRIL 7, 2015
In late 2002 and through 2003, Judith Miller, an investigative reporter at The New York Times, wrote a series of articles about the presumed presence of chemical and biological weapons and possible nuclear matériel in Iraq. Critics thought the articles too bellicose and in lock step with the George W. Bush administration’s march to war. They all included careful qualifiers, but their overwhelming message was that Saddam Hussein posed a threat.
Ms. Miller’s defense of her work then was straightforward: She reported what her sources told her. She has now written a book-length elaboration of that defense, “The Story: A Reporter’s Journey.” The defense is no better now than it was then.
The string of exclusive articles she produced before the Iraq war had the effect of buttressing the Bush administration’s case for invasion.
She had built her career on access. She describes finding, cultivating and tending to powerfully situated sources. She writes that she did not, as some critics of her prewar reporting supposed, sit in her office and wait for the phone to ring. She pounded the pavement. And an ambitious reporter with the power, prestige and resources of a large news organization behind her can cover a lot of road.
Opponents of the Iraq invasion and media critics of her reporting accused her of being a secret neoconservative thirsting for war. Whatever her actual politics, though, the agenda that comes through most strongly here is a desire to land on the front page. She rarely mentions an article she wrote without noting that it appeared on the front page or complaining that it did not.
(S)he was the sole reporter embedded with the military team charged with finding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. It failed, meaning so had she. Ms. Miller concedes that the Bush administration’s case for war was built largely on Iraq’s presumably ambitious weapons program. In describing what went wrong with one particular claim, she offers a defense that is repeated throughout the book: “The earlier stories had been wrong because the initial intelligence assessments we reported were themselves mistaken – not lies or exaggerations.”
Ms. Miller’s main defense is that the experts she relied upon – intelligence officials, weapons experts, members of the Bush administration and others – were wrong about Mr. Hussein’s weapons. She acknowledges being wrong but not making any mistakes. She quotes herself telling another reporter: “If your sources were wrong, you are wrong.” This is where she gets stuck.
And this is where Terry McDermott ends his Rand Paul 5 minutes of lucidity.
Journalists, especially those who have a talent for investigative work, are taught early to write big, to push the story as far as possible. Be careful; nail the facts; be fair, but push hard. Nobody pushed harder than Ms. Miller. In this case, she wound up implicitly pushing for war.
A deeper critique of her own reporting, and through that example a critique of the entire enterprise of investigative reporting, would examine its inherently prosecutorial nature. Investigators – journalistic or otherwise – are constantly trying to build a case, to make things fit even when they don’t obviously do so. In the process, the rough edges of the world can be whittled away, nuance can become muddled in the reporter’s head, in the writing, or in the editing.
Investigative Reporting?! INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING?!
Let’s try whoring your soul, bootlicking sychophancy, shilling for war criminals.
What Judith Miller did has nothing to do with investigative reporting. It was “access journalism.”
And as excited as I am to be here with the President, I am appalled to be surrounded by the liberal media that is destroying America, with the exception of FOX News. FOX News gives you both sides of every story: the President’s side, and the Vice President’s side.
But the rest of you, what are you thinking? Reporting on NSA wiretapping or secret prisons in Eastern Europe? Those things are secret for a very important reason: they’re super-depressing. And if that’s your goal, well, misery accomplished.
Over the last five years you people were so good, over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn’t want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out. Those were good times, as far as we knew.
But, listen, let’s review the rules. Here’s how it works. The President makes decisions. He’s the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put ’em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration? You know, fiction!