A Superstar Crashes and Burns
Another shameful chapter in The New York Times story comes to an end
Nov. 17, 2005: Vol. 1, Issue No. 49
IN THE NEWS
Judy Miller Fights Back with Letters to Dowd and Calame
NEW YORK--Judith Miller will not go gently into that good night. Her public relations offensive, which had already taken her to CNN with Larry King and to National Public Radio and elsewhere, now includes angry published letters to two of her antagonists, former colleague Maureen Dowd and New York Times Public Editor Barney Calame.
--Joe Strupp, Editor & Publisher, Nov. 13, 2005
For us news junkies, the professional demise of Judith Miller, the dangerous and duplicitous New York Times reporter who has been accused of taking us to war in Iraq, has been both fascinating and cathartic.
Equally fascinating was the inaction of her editors who failed to ride herd, and the paralysis of the gray little man at the top trying to hold things together with chewing gum and chicken wire.
Now it's over. On Nov. 9, 2005, under enormous pressure from her angry colleagues and an outraged media, Miller involuntarily resigned from The New York Times after 28 years.
THE PLAY is done--the curtain drops,
Slow falling to the prompter's bell;
A moment yet the actor stops,
And looks around, to say farewell.
It is an irksome word and task;
And, when he 's laugh'd and said his say,
He shows, as he removes the mask,
A face that 's anything but gay.
--William Makepeace Thackeray
How Judy Miller took us to war in Iraq
Miller, 57, is the most reviled reporter in America--if not the world--and has been for a long time. As Franklin Foer wrote in the June 7, 2005, New York magazine:
Miller is a star, a diva. She wrote big stories, won big prizes. Long before her WMD articles ran, Miller had become a newsroom legend--and for reasons that had little to do with the stories that appeared beneath her byline. With her seemingly bottomless ambition--a pair of big feet that would stomp on colleagues in her way and even crunch a few bystanders--she cut a larger-than-life figure that lent itself to Paul Bunyan-esque retellings. Most of these stories aren't kind. Of course, nobody said journalism was a country club. And her personality was immaterial while she was succeeding, winning a Pulitzer, warning the world about terrorism, bio-weapons, and Iraq's war machine. But now, who she is, and why she prospered, makes for a revealing cautionary tale about the culture of American journalism.
In recent months Miller made national news by going to jail rather than revealing a confidential source for a story she never wrote.
Jail was a red herring. The real story is how Miller relied on tainted information from Ahmad Chalabi and a group of disgruntled Iraqi ex-pats that wanted Saddam Hussein out and themselves in. Her reportage is summed up by media critic Alexander Cockburn in the Nov. 18, 2005, edition of CounterPunch:
We don't have full 20/20 hindsight yet, but we do know for certain that all the sensational disclosures in Miller's major stories between late 2001 and early summer, 2003, promoted disingenuous lies. There were no secret biolabs under Saddam's palaces; no nuclear factories across Iraq secretly working at full tilt. A huge percentage of what Miller wrote was garbage, garbage that powered the Bush administration's propaganda drive towards invasion. What does that make Miller? She was a witting cheer-leader for war. She knew what she was doing.
Unfortunately, when a story appears in The New York Times, you assume that the facts have come from more than one source and that the story is true. So when Miller's bogus tales of WMD appeared in the Times, it corroborated the bogus intelligence of the CIA.
"She never knew when to quit. That was her talent and her flaw," wrote Maureen Dowd, the popular Times columnist in her op-ed piece titled "A Woman of Mass Destruction." "Sorely in need of a tight editorial leash, she was kept on no leash at all, and that has hurt this paper and its trust with readers. She more than earned her sobriquet 'Miss Run Amok.'"
As early as November 2003 and February 2004, media critics Alexander Cockburn of CounterPunch, Michael Massing of The New York Review of Books and Jack Shafer of Slate, were sending up distress flares over Miller's shoddy reporting. For whatever reasons--most likely Miller's connections and power--no one at the Times had the nerve to question her sources or veracity. "It was an institutional failure," Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. said in a recent speech. "We didn't own up to it quickly enough."
I watched Miller being interviewed by Larry King on Nov. 10, 2005, and was totally blown away by her continual disarming smile as she said her job was to present the news. "And you know what? If it's wrong, you go back and you say it was wrong and you do a second story, and a third story, until you get as close to the truth as you can get. It's not sexy journalism, but it's the way I think it ought to be done, and it's the way I tried to do it," Miller said.
Smiling, she admitted she got it wrong--and got it wrong more than once.
And as she sat there smiling at Larry King and at me, Russ Baker's line in The Nation was screaming in my brain: "I am convinced there would not have been a war (against Iraq) without Judy Miller."
Who is to blame?
A small plaque on Harry Truman's desk in the Oval Office said, "The Buck Stops Here."
On his watch, Sulzberger, 51, the fifth member of his family to run The New York Times, has twice now permitted criminal sloppiness in the newsroom, indicating a generational diminution of genes that is so often found in a family business:
- In 2003, reporter Jayson Blair was caught red-handed having written fictional interviews, plagiarizing stories from other newspapers, submitting fake expense accounts and repeatedly lying as to his whereabouts.
- Two years later The New York Times has a massive credibility problem with the reportage of Judy Miller.
If Baker is right--that there would not have been a war in Iraq without Miller--then Sulzberger is a throwback to William Randolph Hearst who, in 1898, sent a terse message to Frederic Remington, his leading illustrator in Havana: "Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war."
If some enterprising filmmaker decides to make "Citizen Sulzberger," the ideal actor to play the Orson Welles role is Woody Allen.
Takeaway Points to Consider
- Every business is a team effort.
- Last August in Vol. 1, Issue No. 25, I wrote about the Philadelphia Eagles' spectacular wide receiver, Terrell (T.O.) Owens and his abusive quest for a new contract. Since then he went on to play brilliant ball through October. Alas, he started shooting off his mouth again, dissing management, his fellow players and quarterback Donovan McNabb. The Eagles canned him three days before the Times got rid of Judy Miller. T.O.'s brilliance in the Sunday games was not worth the decimation of team morale.
- Before firing Owens, the team management sent him letters documenting his transgressions so that a record existed in writing. With a renegade employee, it's imperative to create a paper trail.
- Back to the team effort idea--I watch a fair amount of football on television, and I cannot name a single New England Patriots player. Yet the Pats keep winning the Super Bowl.
- No one in business--from the boardroom to the mailroom--is indispensable.
- Don't be cowed by a superstar employee--no matter how much revenue is being generated or how impressive the connections. The survival of your business and the morale of your employees take precedence.
Web Sites Related to Today's Edition
Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr.
Alexander Cockburn's CounterPunch
William Randolph Hearst
Letters to the Editor
Note: Denny personally replies to all correspondence.
Readers respond to "Can Good Ads Save a Bad Product?" which was published Nov. 15, 2005.
I'm not ashamed to say that I got suckered in by the two-page spread for "In My Life" in The New York Times a couple Sundays back, because it was a fantastic ad. The show, however, was not. Ninety-odd minutes of bizarre songs, no intermission, and front row seats. Oy. While walking to the garage to retrieve our car, my wife said, "Boy, did you get suckered!" I reminded her that she read the ad, too--and agreed to give it a shot. So sure, a strong ad CAN bring in incremental sales. But in this case, I believe word of mouth will determine whether or not "In My Life" will be another "Fantasticks." I'd vote for "not."
I love your perspectives on honest advertising. That piece by David Ogilvy you quoted should be tattooed on the eyeballs of every marketer--ESPECIALLY every internet marketer. Right now too many "big name" copywriters are all too willing to sell any CRAP to any FOOL: diet pills, get rich quick schemes, organ enlargement hardware and potions, medical "breakthroughs," WHATEVER--promising outlandish benefits their products can't possibly deliver. And that includes the big boys like Agora and Boardroom. Yours is a "voice in the wilderness" in the face of all this naked shilling--shilling which, over the long-term, only degrades the effectiveness of direct marketing altogether. And for what it's worth, your book "Method Marketing" is one of the few copywriting texts I never stop reading.
A reader responds to "Vancouver's Olympic Juggernaut," which was published Nov. 10, 2005.
I came late to your issue about Vancouver's Olympic organization. It reminded me of Groucho Marx's response to Warner Brothers when Warner's legal department sent a letter insisting the Marx Brothers couldn't use the name, "A Night In Casablanca," because Warner's owned prior rights to the name Casablanca. Groucho wrote back that the Marx Brothers had been performing as such for years before the Warner Brothers got together and therefore had prior rights to the word Brothers. You know the rest. This comes from a Groucho autobiography. Maybe it's fiction, but it ought to be true.
- Ahmad Chalabi
- Alexander Cockburn
- Arthur O. Sulzberger
- Donovan McNabb
- Franklin Foer
- Frederic Remington
- Groucho Marx
- Harry Truman
- Jack Shafer
- Jayson Blair
- Joe Strupp
- Judith Miller
- Larry King
- Maureen Dowd
- Michael Massing
- Orson Welles
- Paul Bunyan
- Russ Baker
- Saddam Hussein
- The News
- William Makepeace Thackeray
- William Randolph Hearst
- Woody Allen