Judith Miller and Jon Stewart on journalism

"All journalists are manipulated." I have to say, that line Judith Miller used in her interview with Jon Stewart this week is irking me. It's probably true, certainly for myself, that at some time or another, skillful PR people have managed to mislead, sidetrack, obstruct and otherwise manipulate every reporter. 

But part of the job is to recognize when that's being done, and Miller, promoting her new book The Story, comes across under Stewart's questioning as willfully oblivious to that.

During the interview, Stewart calls Miller's  attention to a September 8, 2002 front-page New York Times story Miller wrote (with Michael Gordon, as she noted) showcasing the Bush administration’s contention that Saddam Hussein had “embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb.”

Stewart pointed out the phrase that says administration “hard-liners” were arguing that the first “smoking gun” to be sighted from Saddam's supposed build-up could be a “mushroom cloud.”  (Condoleeza Rice used the  line publicly the same day, and President George W. Bush repeated it in a speech the following month.)

“It’s a very powerful line, and it explains their thinking,” Miller responds.

Stewart retorts that the phrase originated with a White House speechwriter, Michael Gerson. “It’s a political line directly tied to the White House,” he says. In other words: recognize that it's spin.

"Jon, were we not to report what it was that had the community, the intelligence community to be  so nervous about Saddam?" Miller replies. "Were we supposed to keep that from the American people?"

Stewart: "No-- you should have reported it though, in the context that this administration was very clearly pushing a narrative and by losing sight of that context  by not reporting"--

Miller: "I think we did, the story said"--

Stewart: "I wholeheartedly disagree with you."

Miller: "Now, that’s what makes journalism."

Stewart: "It’s actually not what makes journalism, so let’s continue with this."

 

Miller's argument is that she, like other reporters, was simply reporting the facts--that is, the information intelligence analysts were working with at the time--and can't be faulted for that. Her former New York Times colleague Neil Lewis responds in the Columbia Journalism Review:

This is fractionally true; Others did write such stories. But no one reported this line with such frequency and fervor - or with such frightening language as to the consequences of leaving Saddam alone. At the time of her reports, Miller seemed to revel in her role as pace-setter on this story. Now, it seems, she is eager to assume a more modest posture: she was only doing what most everyone else was.

The Bush administration was selling a powerful story line to justify an invasion of Iraq: America had to confront an apocalyptic threat of annihilation. Not all reporters were manipulated by that narrative, and others might have stood up to it more resolutely if the paper of record had not given it so much credence.

 

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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Facts, R.I.P.

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