Miller Brouhaha: The New York Times' Judith Miller Has Been Pummelled Unmercifully for Her Reporting on the Search for Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq. but Coverage of This Murky Subject Has Hardly Been the Finest Hour for the News Media in General

By Layton, Charles | American Journalism Review, August-September 2003 | Go to article overview

Miller Brouhaha: The New York Times' Judith Miller Has Been Pummelled Unmercifully for Her Reporting on the Search for Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq. but Coverage of This Murky Subject Has Hardly Been the Finest Hour for the News Media in General


Layton, Charles, American Journalism Review


As the war in Iraq has turned into a grueling occupation, the question of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction persists. To investigate that question, there would seem to be no better-qualified reporter on Earth than Judith Miller of the New York Times.

Miller is a genuine expert on weapons of mass destruction or, in Washington parlance, WMD. She has written important books about Saddam Hussein and about germ warfare, and she shared a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for stories about al Qaeda. She has been a Times foreign correspondent based in Cairo, has traveled extensively on assignments, has covered the United Nations' WMD inspection program, and has experience covering the federal government dating back to the 1970s, when she was Washington bureau chief for The Progressive magazine.

But with the possible exception of Geraldo Rivera, Miller has become the most-criticized journalist of the war. The New Republic accused her of having "painted a grave picture of Saddam's WMD capabilities--a picture that has, so far, not been borne out." She has been charged with "compromised reporting" in the pages of Editor & Publisher. Slate has called her a purveyor of "misinformation." A Washington Post writer has questioned the reliability of her sources.

And Russ Baker, writing in the June 23 issue of The Nation went so far as to compare her to Jayson Blair, the Times staffer who resigned when his dishonest reporting practices came to light (see "All About the Retrospect," June/July). "In Blair's case," Baker wrote, "the only serious damage has been to the paper's image. Miller, on the other hand, risks playing with the kind of fire that starts or justifies wars, gets people killed and plays into the hands of government officials with partisan axes to grind."

It is hard to think of any other reporter of Miller's stature being so barraged with criticism by fellow journalists. She herself is hard put to explain it, and more than a little angry.

In an interview with AJR, she insistently defended every aspect of her reporting, saying again and again how proud she is of her exclusive stories. What she remembers is how hard it was to talk her way inside a highly secret unit of weapons hunters, and then to bivouac with those troops in the Iraqi desert, sandstorms blowing, wild dogs howling, sometimes exposed to the elements without rain gear or sleeping gear, with little more than the personal effects she had crammed into her "little blue backpack from the Gap." Plus, she says, someone sat on her computer and broke it.

After overcoming all that--and after having to fight repeatedly with a commanding officer who didn't want her there in the first place, "because he was not comfortable with my access to the information"--it galls her to be attacked by fellow journalists. "I think we beat everybody in the field," she says, referring to her competition, "and what we're getting now is a lot of sour grapes."

Miller's reporting began to stir resentment last September, when she and fellow Times reporter Michael R. Gordon wrote that the Bush administration believed Iraq had "stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons" and "embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb." They wrote that Iraq had tried to import thousands of aluminum tubes, which U.S. officials believed "were intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium."

This story appeared at a time when the Bush administration was struggling to convince Congress, the American public and the world that Saddam had huge stockpiles of unconventional weapons and was quickly rebuilding a nuclear program that had been dismantled after the Persian Gulf War.

These claims stirred the suspicions of some reporters. John Diamond, who had just begun a new intelligence beat at USA Today, says he had "started to notice that policy-makers were saying as a flat statement that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. …

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