MEDIA corporations are arguably the most important yet least examined centers of power in our society. The owners of the Fourth Estate have a unique ability to direct the searchlight of inquiry upon others while remaining powerfully positioned to deflect it from themselves.
That is the blunt message of the belated but devastating report in Sunday's New York Times on how the paper turned reporter Judith Miller's "case into a cause." In its zeal to present its own discredited reporter as a 1st Amendment hero, the "paper of record" badly neutered its news department's coverage of the Miller saga and deployed its editorial page as a battering ram in her defense, publishing 15 editorials supporting Miller's protection of her White House source.
"The Times ... limited its own ability to cover aspects of one of the biggest scandals of the day," concluded the front-page article. "Even as the paper asked for the public's support, it was unable to answer its questions."
The paper, led by publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., waged a nonstop public crusade not just to protect Miller in the courts but to make her an outright heroine -- obscuring the fact that she was not protecting the public's right to know but was abetting the Bush administration in its shameless and possibly criminal attempt to discredit a whistle-blower. That whistle-blower, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, had enraged the administration by exposing its use of faked WMD evidence as justification for invading Iraq.
For reasons that are still murky (and which are not made clearer by her own lengthy statement printed in the same edition), Miller argues that a waiver signed last year by Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, Scooter Libby, was not good enough to allow her to testify and that simply asking Libby point-blank whether he had signed the waiver willingly would have been somehow unethical.
"She has the keys to release herself," the judge said when holding Miller in contempt of court for refusing to testify. "She has a waiver she chooses not to recognize."
To understand how the New York Times got to this embarrassing point, it must be acknowledged that even at highly regarded newspapers, editors serve at the whim of their publishers. What is clear from the Times' Sunday expose is that publisher Sulzberger granted Miller uncritical backing despite the severe reservations felt by some of the paper's top editors.
Douglas Frantz, then the investigative editor at the New York Times and now managing editor of the L.A. Times, is quoted as saying Miller once called herself "Miss Run Amok," and when he asked her what that meant, she said, "I can do whatever I want."
Others at the New York Times, including top editors, had become highly suspicious of her sourcing on Iraq WMD stories. They even went so far as to publish an "Editor's Note" questioning the paper's own coverage of the run-up to the war -- with particular emphasis on five of Miller's pieces. But those well-honed editorial sensibilities didn't matter much once the publisher weighed in.
Despite being abysmally ignorant of some of the case's details, the publisher granted Miller total license to define her stonewalling of the grand jury as a freedom-of-the-press battle.
"This car had her hand on the wheel because she was the one at risk," Sulzberger said, ignoring the risks to the paper's integrity. There were also other lives, careers and reputations in the balance, particular that of outed CIA agent Valerie Plame, her covert contacts who had helped her track down WMD, and her ex-diplomat husband.
Yet Sulzberger's insistence that Miller was the true victim carried the day at the paper his family owns. As Miller put it in honest, if gloating, terms: "He galvanized the editors, the senior editorial staff. He metaphorically and literally put his arm around me."
Evidently galvanizing the editors led to their suspending the profound doubts that they felt concerning Miller's tactics and standards as a reporter. Perhaps most damaging in Sunday's article is the admission that an article on Libby and Plamegate was apparently squashed by top management to protect Miller.
"It was taken pretty clearly among us as a signal that we were cutting too close to the bone, that we were getting into an area that could complicate Judy's situation," said Richard Stevenson, one of the censored reporters.
As for Miller, she seems to still have no clue as to what it means to be an ethical journalist. "We have everything to be proud of and nothing to apologize for," she stated, apparently referring to herself and to the great newspaper she was allowed to corrupt.