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Judith Iscariot

Miller sells journalism down the river. Again.

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On September 29, after Judith Miller ended her 85-day jail term by finally agreeing to testify in the federal Grand Jury probe into whether any government official illegally revealed the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame, the controversial New York Times reporter insisted that she "went to jail to preserve the time-honored principle that a journalist must respect a promise not to reveal the identity of a confidential source." Her boss, Executive Editor Bill Keller, similarly praised Miller's "defense of principle."

After two ensuing trips to prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's chambers to discuss her three unpublished interviews with top Dick Cheney aide Scooter Libby (testimony that seems to be pointing toward a Libby indictment), and especially after this weekend's extraordinary publication of torturous explanations from both Miller and her disgruntled colleagues in the Times newsroom, we now have an altogether different idea of the "principle" animating Miller's decisions. It may indeed be "time-honored," but it has about as much to do with quality journalism as driving a getaway car has to do with catching a thief.

To put it as plainly as possible, Miller didn't want to testify about the Vice President's right hand man not because he forbade her to—on the contrary, he gave her his authorization from the get-go—but rather because she had good reason to believe Libby wanted her to lie. And in Judith Miller's bizarre, journalistically compromised world, it is less important to catch a powerful official in a blatant lie than it is to protect your friendly relationship with a productive, high-ranking source.

Consider this excerpt from Sunday's Times account of the original negotiations between Times lawyer Floyd Abrams, and Libby's laywer Joseph Tate:

Mr. Abrams told Ms. Miller and the group that Mr. Tate had said she was free to testify. Mr. Abrams said Mr. Tate also passed along some information about Mr. Libby's grand jury testimony: that he had not told Ms. Miller the name or undercover status of Mr. Wilson's wife.

That raised a potential conflict for Ms. Miller. Did the references in her notes to "Valerie Flame" and "Victoria Wilson" suggest that she would have to contradict Mr. Libby's account of their conversations? Ms. Miller said in an interview that she concluded that Mr. Tate was sending her a message that Mr. Libby did not want her to testify. […]

"Judy believed Libby was afraid of her testimony," Mr. Keller said, noting that he did not know the basis for the fear. "She thought Libby had reason to be afraid of her testimony."

Ms. Miller and the paper decided at that point not to pursue additional negotiations with Mr. Tate.

Let's break that down. 1) Through lawyers, Libby tells Miller to go ahead and testify. 2) He also emphasizes a point that flatly contradicts Miller's notes and recollections from their conversations. 3) Instead of seeing that as a golden opportunity to withstand untoward pressure and set the factual record straight with Libby's expressed written blessing, she decides to protect him from himself by claiming an absurd, inaccurate, and (as it turns out) highly malleable "principle."

All of the many other important considerations in this case aside, why doesn't Judith Miller find it newsworthy that one of the country's most powerful men rather transparently hoped that a New York Times reporter would lie for him on the witness stand? (A point reinforced by Libby's personal letter of Sept. 15 to Miller re-stating his confidentiality waiver, while emphasizing that "the public report of every other reporter's testimony makes clear that they did not discuss Ms. Plame's name or identity with me.")

The answer seems to be that Miller trusts Libby, and values his friendship. He was "a good-faith source who was usually straight with me," she told her colleagues.

So much so that she unblinkingly caved in to whatever sourcing request Libby made, while he was sliming Valerie Plame and her husband, the administration critic Joseph Wilson. "Mr. Libby wanted to modify our prior understanding that I would attribute information from him to a 'senior administration official,'" Miller recalled in her Sunday piece. "When the subject turned to Mr. Wilson, Mr. Libby requested that he be identified only as a 'former Hill staffer.' I agreed to the new ground rules because I knew that Mr. Libby had once worked on Capitol Hill."

You'd think by now that Judith Miller would be a little less automatically deferential to senior administration officials, analysts waving around security clearances, and Iraqi exiles. After all, these people were the basis of at least five of her own articles about supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq for which her own boss later had to apologize (while declining to single her out).

But even now, she remains both defiant and utterly unreflective about how her own attitudes and work habits contributed to the Times' journalistic black eye. "W.M.D.—I got it totally wrong," she told her colleagues. "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."

This quote should be a firing offense, but short of that it will serve as an illustration of how Miller-style journalism is destined to fail. If your sources are wrong, you should find that out before you print their accusations as fact; and if you discover they were wrong on purpose, you should burn them with extreme prejudice. Especially if they work in the White House.

And what about that "time-honored principle" stuff, subject of so many self-congratulatory Times editorials? Mickey Kaus said it best: "The message sent to every prosecutor in the country is 'Don't believe journalists who say they will never testify. A bit of hard time and they just might find a reason to change their minds. Judy Miller did.' This is the victory for the press the Times has achieved. More journalists will now go to jail, quite possibly, than if Miller had just cut a deal right away, before taking her stand on 'principle.'"

The unintended consequences of the Plame investigation will keep the punditocracy buzzing for months and probably years to come. Here's hoping for one side benefit: that Miller's journalistic reputation will receive the sound thrashing it so richly deserves.

Associate Editor Matt Welch writes from Los Angeles. His work is archived at mattwelch.com, where he also blogs.