You wouldn't know it from reading the editorial on Iraq in today's NYT, but at a U Michigan Knight-Wallace Fellows panel on "Covering the New Secrecy" yesterday, NYT Managing Editor Jill Abramson came as close as I've ever seen the NYT to disavowing the reporting of Judy Miller. Her comments came in response to my question about whether the press lost credibility wrt increased secrecy given its complicity in the run-up to the war. Sure, there was the typical NYT denial, most notably as she tried to take credit for debunking the Mohammed Atta in Prague story while ignoring NYT's role in disseminating that story (at least in this case, both stories made it to A1). But Abramson welcomed the question as an opportunity to show that the press is in greater danger of relying too much on government officials rather than (as one of the GOP shills on the panel, Brad Berenson, would have it) too inclined to reveal damaging information. [The damn moderator edited my question, btw, to challenge Berenson, who had emphasized the importance of protecting HUMINT; I had a second part that asked him specifically about the government's insistence that we protect Chalabi's fabricators, but alas, he never had to answer.]
Abramson mentioned the NYT's (read, Judy Miller's) credulity toward defectors. She admitted the NYT was instrumental in amplifying bad WMD claims. Most impressive, to me, was that she hailed Knight-Ridder's coverage, noting how much more successful they were at reporting the truth largely because they relied on mid-level sources, rather than
Scooter Libby SAOs.
It was a real hairshirt moment, as Woodward immediately jumped in to say,
I failed. I had three sources who said the intelligence was skimpier than what they [the Administration] was saying. ... You can get to the doubts by using the term Weapons of Mass Destruction. [gives a definition of the three types of WMDs] If you examine each of those components you'll find someone who had doubts. [my transcription--the second part is very rough]
Not all that much more than he said in this Vanity Fair article.
But Woodward startled him. "I am picking that up, too," he said.
"Yes," Woodward said. "There seem to be real doubts now. Let me see what you have written and let's see if we can get it into the paper."
But still, my question did elicit a rush to admit guilt.
It was in the comments and questions, really, that this was an interesting panel. In the prepared remarks, almost everyone attempted to ground their talk--and their view of secrecy and classification--in their own seminal moment of history. Berenson and the "Secrecy Czar" J William Leonard both started their talk by talking about the Constitution and the penchant for secrecy of the Founding Fathers. Abramson hearkened back (as I'm sure her boss, Pinch Sulzberger, would too) to the Pentagon Papers. Woodward neatly invoked the transition from Watergate (his personal seminal moment) to Ford (his next book?) by relating how Bernstein told him, "the sonuvabitch pardoned the sonuvabitch." On the part of the big names (some welcome exceptions were Thomas Blanton, head of the National Security Archive and Steven Aftergood, head of FAS), this was partly a celebration of the esteemed institutions of journalism. Needless to say, no one uttered the word, "blog."
Out of the discussion, though, the panel widely (don't know if this was unanimous) agreed with the consensus opinion about what was different about this Administration's penchant for secrecy: it wasn't so much the question of secrecy, as it is a struggle over executive power. Legally, Tom Blanton explained, things aren't "Worse than Watergate." There are laws on the books that should make things much better than they were under Watergate. But, he quipped, the problem is that we do have a secrecy czar, the same guy who is hiding in his undisclosed location. It's not the law that's the problem, it's the Vice President.
The most effective--and unfortunate--case made yesterday came from Eve Burton, the General Counsel for Hearst Corporation, and therefore the woman who is fighting to keep Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada, the two journalists who broke the BALCO steroids story, out of jail (Williams came on stage and spoke, too). Burton repeatedly took the stated concerns of Berenson and Leonard with security (yes, they both invoked 9/11 repeatedly) and just pointed out, security is one thing, but this is baseball. The Bush DOJ is going after journalists' sources not just on security cases, but also on baseball cases. You can certainly argue this is a case where Bush is trying to protect the franchises of many of his former buddies in baseball, but you can't argue this protects us from Osama bin Laden.
I said this was unfortunate. That's because one central goal of this conference was to get citizens lobbying for a journalist shield law. But that all comes back to the point of my question: to what degree did the NYT, and the press in general, lose credibility with their shilling on the Iraq War? Why did the NYT stake its journalist shield campaign on a flawed case (one which would almost certainly have never been affected by a shield law in any case)? They basically cried wolf for two years, then realized they were the ones harboring a wolf in their own henhouse. And even with Abramson's hair shirt apologies, it's hard to undo the damage that comes from fighting the wrong battle.