January 26, 2005: A moment with...

Judith Miller *72

When Judith Miller *72, a veteran reporter for the New York Times, refused to reveal the identity of confidential sources during testimony before a grand jury investigating the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity, a federal judge held her in contempt, and could send her to prison for up to 18 months. (Miller is appealing.) Miller, who has a degree from the Woodrow Wilson School, has faced controversy before, for prewar dispatches concerning Iraq’s weapons stockpiles and in unflattering press reports about her personal life. She spoke recently to PAW’s Mark F. Bernstein ’83.

Why are you taking this stand in the Plame investigation?

We’re taking this stand because, in order to stay in business, people who come to us with sensitive information who are afraid of repercussions have to have confidence in our determination to protect them, as we said we would. In general, all reporters prefer to talk to people on the record, so the reader can assess who is speaking and why. But if that is impossible — if people work for the government in a sensitive position or for a powerful corporation and are afraid of being fired — they should be able to come to us and know that if they share with us information that turns out to be the truth, that we will protect them. I don’t want to go to jail, but I am absolutely committed to this principle.

Is this an ethical issue?

It’s an ethical issue. It’s a tradecraft issue. It’s an issue of principle. I also think of it as a no-brainer issue. I would be out of business if people stopped giving me information.

Do journalists receive any formal training in ethics?

It’s different for every reporter. You can’t generalize. I’ve been with the New York Times for over 27 years and we have a very strict code of ethics. These are deeply ingrained in the institution, and reporters learn them when they come there.

Has the relationship between reporters and those in government changed during your time as a reporter?

It has changed since 9/11. In the wake of the attacks, government has simply been much more secretive. Things that used to be available on Web sites and used to be talked about no longer are talked about. Of course some information ought to remain secret, but to do our jobs we must ensure that people can come to journalists and tell a story that needs to be told.

Why were so many people so wrong about Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction?

Given my ongoing legal battle, I don’t want to dwell on this issue. But I urge you to look at the Senate Select Committee report on WMD. I accurately reported what my sources were saying, but I was wrong because my sources were wrong.

Based on our experience concerning Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction, is there any rethinking that journalists should do about how much reliance they place on sources?

Let me put it this way: I have always been skeptical, but when virtually everyone is saying the same thing to you, it’s tough to challenge them. If you are overly skeptical, you’ll never write anything. You have to go with what you consider to be the consensus view, and try to factor in motives and why a person is telling you something, with appropriate qualifiers. But ultimately we are only as good as our sources.

You have spent a lot of time in the Middle East. Do you see it as a fertile place for democracy?

There is very little tradition of democracy as we know it in the Arab world. Since Islam’s inception, there has been a struggle within Islam between those who favor a more literal versus a more expansive interpretation of sacred texts. This struggle is not going to go away. I am very opposed to the Islamic militants, who believe in what they call a “straight path” — one way of doing things. And I think the militant interpretation of Islam is not a fair representation of the tenets of the faith as most Muslims practice them. I am unapologetically militant in my belief that if those extremist elements triumph, Islam will be tarnished in the eyes of the world, and the world will be a far more brutal place. But this is mainly their struggle.

You have been criticized for having sharp reportorial elbows. Is some of that criticism because you are a woman?

To some extent. Some of the articles that have been written about me, allegations about my personal life, would never have been written about a man.

Yet surely you have seen the status of women journalists improve during the course of your career?

Definitely — because of women like me with sharp elbows and loud mouths. This didn’t just happen. Women fought for it. end of article


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