The Case of the Old Notebook

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The Case of the Old Notebook

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

All reporters use reams of notebooks, filled with scribbles and notes that are usually indeciferable to anyone else. We scrawl at warp speed, filling page after page that become double Dutch even to us the longer we leave them lying around.

For Judy Miller, a reporter for the New York Times, vague scrawls in old notebooks are crucial clues in a case that landed her in jail and raised serious questions about the Times's handling of one of its most controversial reporters.

On Sunday, the Times published a voluminous article detailing how Miller became embroiled in a White House effort to discredit a critic of the Bush administration's Iraq policies. Miller, citing a time-honored tradition to protect confidential sources, went to jail rather than disclose that her source was Lewis Libby, Dick Cheney's chief of staff.

Or was it?

Miller's notes, more than two years later, aren't clear. In a first-person account that accompanied Sunday's expose, Miller acknowledged speaking with Libby about the Bush critic, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, and his wife, Valerie Plame, whose outing as a CIA agent is at the heart of the case. But Miller says that she doesn't think it was Libby who gave her Plame's name, despite the fact that it appears in the same notebook in which she wrote about their meeting.

The source for the name, she says, might have been someone else, but she doesn't recall who.

The fact that many questions remain unanswered, even after Sunday's highly detailed stories in the Times, has upset many critics, both within and outside the newspaper.

Before I go further, I should note that I'm a former staff member of the New York Times and until recently was one of its correspondents on the West Coast.

Within the Times, some reporters and editors are furious that Miller seems to have run roughshod over the paper's usually exacting standards. Their anger goes back to the run-up to the Iraq war, when at least five of Miller's stories on weapons of mass destruction were later found to have been wrong.

Sunday's main story revealed that executive editor Bill Keller had barred Miller from writing on such topics, but he admitted that she kept "drifting on her own back into the national security realm."

"Inexplicably, her superiors didn't stop her," an editorial in today's Chicago Tribune said.

Keller and publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the editorial said, "left most legal decisions to Miller and did not require her to reveal details about her conversations" with Libby, or to share her notes with her own colleagues at The Times who were investigating the case.

Miller acknowledges that she had free rein at the Times, where she referred to herself as "Miss Run Amok." Asked to explain the nickname, she said, "I can do whatever I want."

Journalism critics find that extraordinary.

"It's quite possible that of all the scandals and disturbances that the Times has gone through, this is the worst," Michael Wolff, media critic for Vanity Fair, said in a Reuters story.

The same story said that, inside the Times newsroom, reporters were angry and disappointed. "People here are seething. They want some resolution," one senior reporter said.

Trying to quell the storm, Keller, The Times's editor, wrote a note to the staff yesterday. "In the world beyond the media water coolers," he predicted, "the focus will shift back to more momentous stories possibly including the leak investigation in which, for all we know, this paper's ordeal may have been more a digression than a climax."

But Keller was realistic about the ordeal.

"If I had it to do over," he said, "there is probably much I'd do differently."

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



Nick Madigan