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Loose Cannons

For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

As much as it tried to avoid it, the New York Times has sunk deeper and deeper into an embarrassing controversy over the role that veteran reporter Judith Miller played in the case of the outed CIA agent.

We've addressed the subject before in this space, but the Miller fiasco remains the biggest story in journalism. It appears to be damaging the paper's reputation just as it had finally surfaced from the scandal of Jayson Blair, whose fabrications prompted the firings two years ago of The Times's two top editors. That scandal forced a major reappraisal of newsroom policies, and The Times appeared to have emerged stronger and wiser.

But when I spoke yesterday to a Times reporter, he described the staff as "demoralized," and then had a few unrepeatable words for Judy Miller.

Like Jayson Blair, Miller seems to have been working her beat with no one looking over her shoulder. At the very least, there are still substantial questions over how and why she protected a White House source whose only goal was political retribution.

Although Miller served 85 days in jail before revealing her source, she is no longer seen as some kind of martyr. Her future at the paper is unclear. Some Times staff members wish her gone, the sooner the better.

In the last few days, Miller has been the target of some very public sniping, some of it from her own colleagues. Maureen Dowd wrote in her Op-Ed column that, sorely in need of a tight editorial leash, Miller "was kept on no leash at all, and that has hurt this paper and its trust with readers." "Before turning her case into a First Amendment battle," Dowd said, the paper's senior editors "should have nailed her to a chair and extracted the entire story of her escapade."

The Times's editor, Bill Keller, also went public with his revised view of Miller, telling the staff in a memo that she had misled the paper's Washington bureau chief and that he wished he had debriefed her himself. Keller said that if he had known the details of Miller's "entanglement" with Scooter Libby, Dick Cheney's chief of staff, he would have been more careful in how the paper defended her position.

Miller herself wrote back that Keller's memo was "seriously inaccurate," and that she never misled anyone.

But Miller cannot possibly hope to return to her reporting job at The New York Times by telling her boss in public that he's barking up the wrong tree. In New York magazine, Kurt Andersen writes that The Times's own investigation of the Miller fiasco "shockingly" depicts Miller as "a supremely well-connected prima donna loathed by many of her colleagues, a loose cannon who recklessly disregards conventional boundaries."

Greg Mitchell, the editor of the trade publication Editor and Publisher, wrote a column saying that Miller must be fired.

"Judith Miller is a train wreck as a reporter," Mitchell wrote. "She has committed deep crimes against journalism."

Tom Rosensteil, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, was surprised at The Times's support for Miller in the CIA case when she had already proved to be unreliable in her reporting on weapons of mass destruction much of which the paper retracted.

However, he said, the public airing of discontent within The Times's newsroom is a positive development.

"It's a sign that the values of journalism and the public-interest mission of journalism are alive and well at The Times," Rosensteil said. "Ironically, it reveals the strength of the institution. What would be worrisome would be silence."

This is Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW

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