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Emptywheel and Phoenix Woman Have Much Less Patience with Max Frankel than I Do

Emptywheel finds Max Frankel to be at the center of the saddest moment of the Libby trial:

Max Frankel’s Ghost: The saddest moment of the Scooter Libby trial... was when Max Frankel, the last Executive Editor of the NYT to treat the gray lady with the respect she once deserved [talked to]... Robert Bennett, Judy Miller's personal lawyer....

Let me remind you why Bennett was even there. Judy had originally been represented by the NYT's chosen lawyer, Floyd Abrams.... Abrams argued for an absolute reporter's privilege.... Judy realized the First Amendment martyr role no longer served her purposes, so she hired the more pragmatic Robert Bennett to represent her interests, now distinct from those of the NYT....

Frankel, the former Executive Editor of a then-great newspaper said this to Bennett.... "You did a great job for us today."

How could Max Frankel, I wondered, yoke the interests of the NYT and Judy Miller so closely?... The comment made me so sad, that a once-great figure like Frankel would tie his interests so closely to Judy's.... And so it was with great interest and a good deal of trepidation that I read Frankel's story today....

It's a story drawing on Frankel's entire career, salted with anecdotes of powerful men leaking important information to Frankel--JFK, LBJ, Dean Rusk--and drawing on a key brief Frankel wrote about the Pentagon Papers. With the quality of his prose and the mostly nuanced understanding of the complexities of the case, Frankel demonstrates how he earned his reputation, with real reporting.... Yet the argument Frankel offers... is fundamentally dishonest....

Let me start by agreeing with Frankel. The damage to journalism--by this whole sordid affair--has been great.... But I would be very particular about the source of that damage... not just... Fitzgerald's subpoena of journalists... [but] when Robert Novak and Judy Miller and the NYT made themselves willing vehicles of Administration propaganda... the NYT launching a dishonest appeal that–they knew–served to assist someone in the obstruction of justice.

So I guess I'll start there, with a funny detail about Frankel's article. As I said, Frankel seems to have an unusually good understanding about some nuances of this case.... [W]hen Frankel characterizes the crimes Libby committed, he almost never discusses obstruction of justice.... [H]e repeatedly names perjury as the crime at issue, arguing "perjury substitut[ed] for an unreachable, perhaps even nonexistent crime," describing reporters protecting Libby's perjury, and suggesting that Fitzgerald pursued journalists' testimony so he "would at least have a perjury case."... Frankel portrays this crime to be about nothing more than perjury, not a deliberate and successful attempt to [obstruct justice and] prevent Fitzgerald from proving the underlying crime.

Which is why it's so funny--or pathetic, really--how Frankel refers to Judy's involvement. First, let's look at how he describes the Iraq War.

That misfired adventure, and the buyer’s remorse of a press and public that accepted the war’s pretext, lay at the root of Libby’s perjury. For it was Cheney, with Libby’s active help, who had sounded the loudest alarms about Hussein’s “reconstituted” nuclear program, about his stores of chemical and biological weapons and supposed ties to Al Qaeda. When, mere weeks into the war in 2003, no such weapons could be found, it was Cheney and Libby whose reputations and influence were imperiled as much as the president’s.

Remarkable, huh? 3000 American men and women dead, and it's just a little "misfired adventure"? And see what he does with the subjects of this paragraph? There the "press and public" are, with their buyer's remorse, positioned together on one side, with Libby and Cheney, the guilty parties, on the other side. Frankel conveniently lumps the press in with the public, unwilling dupes, but in no way actors that worked with and for Libby and Cheney to sell this war to the American public.

What a fundamental misrepresentation of the press' role in this war! Of how the majority of the population opposed the war, wanted nothing to do with it, until people like Judy Miller and Michael Gordon and Patrick Tyler came along and persuaded the public that this was something they ought to buy. Frankel does, at one point, admit that Judy's pre-war reporting lent "credence to the administration’s wild alarms about Iraqi W.M.D.’s" (he makes no mention of her war reporting). But he separates that from any question of complicity on the part of the press–or the NYT in particular. In fact, in a later discussion, Frankel claims that these poor journalists (and editors) were helpless until someone else came along and offered them a leak to counter those of the Administration.

On the path to war in Iraq, high officials of the Bush administration leaked classified but far from reliable information about W.M.D.’s, then pointed to its publication as “evidence” of its truth. When no W.M.D.’s were found, they used the same flawed secrets to justify their misrepresentations. But reporters could not expose this skullduggery until they obtained contradictory leaks from disheartened intelligence officials....

As if the editors of the NYT don't bear any blame for printing such crap on the front page of the NYT....

Max Frankel wants to describe this as a trial about perjury--a lie about a conversation with Russert--when in fact the trial is about Scooter Libby, with the help of the NYT, hiding the fact that Libby leaked Valerie Wilson's identity to Judy Miller. If Libby did it with the foreknowledge and deliberation Frankel describes, then it was a criminal leak, precisely the thing Patrick Fitzgerald subpoenaed the journalists to find out.

And so the great reporter and last good Executive Editor joins in the NYT's obstruction, its willingness to shill for the Administration, to misrepresent the Administration's crimes. in so doing, he repeats the mistake the NYT made in the first place, when they argued that no one should reveal Libby's name even while they had already revealed it themselves. Frankel uses a cry for press freedom to cover up the NYT's complicity in this case.

You see, Max, it's not that we liberals have lost patience for reporters privilege.... Rather, it comes from a desire to see you exposed. It is time that the NYT stops pretending that it stands on the side of the public, as passive unwilling dupes of this Administration. It is time that the NYT stops laughing off the role of Miller and Gordon and Tyler and Raines and Keller and now Frankel in bringing this country to war on a pack of lies. It is time the NYT stops claiming these were leaks, rather than willful cooperation in the publication of propaganda.

And so, Max Frankel piles propaganda on top of propaganda, arguing the NYT's tired plea they were wronged in this case.

It may sound cynical to conclude that tolerating abusive leaks by government is the price that society has to pay for the benefit of receiving essential leaks about government. But that awkward condition has long served to protect the most vital secrets while dislodging the many the public deserves to know....

No, Mr. Frankel. It's not a matter of tolerating abusive leaks. It's a matter of not tolerating shitty journalism and irresponsible editing. And the day you yoked your fate to Judy Miller's, you endorsed all that shitty journalism and irresponsible editing. Certainly, the day you write a 7800-word article that willfully hides the fact that Scooter Libby intended to launder a deliberate leak of Plame's identity through Judy Miller and the NYT, you lose your right to lecture us about reporters privilege and the public's interests in leaks.

Clean up your own house, first, before you start telling us about what is or is not in our best interest.

And Phoenix Woman asks why Frankel sees Judy Miller as an objective reporter rather than as a neoconservative propaganda operative:

Phoenix Woman: [W]as... journalism... damaged by Judith Miller's being made to testify and to reveal a source.... Is this a legitimate consideration? This depends in part on whether one sees Miller as a disinterested observer, merely reporting a story — or as an actively partisan operative for a particular political faction....

Judith Miller herself has explicitly rejected the traditional role of journalist as someone who examines the facts regardless of whether they hurt one's preconceived notions; as quoted by Michael Massing in The New York Review of Books in its February 26, 2004 issue, she says the following in response to being asked why she didn't include commentary from WMD skeptics in her stories: "My job isn't to assess the government's information and be an independent intelligence analyst myself. My job is to tell readers of The New York Times what the government thought about Iraq's arsenal." In other words, she's not a reporter, she's a stenographer for the Bush team. (Miller would soon furiously claim to have been misquoted, but Massing, in the letters section of the March 25, 2004 NYRB, firmly stood behind his quotation of her: "Judith Miller is simply wrong. During my hours of interviews with her, she requested that I read back all of the quotes that I wanted to use, and I readily agreed. I distinctly remember reading back the quote in question, and I distinctly remember her approving it. I did this not 'reluctantly' but willingly and patiently, precisely so that I could guarantee accuracy and avoid the type of claim she is now making.")

But we don't even need Miller's own words — words she's tried to disavow — to see that she isn't so much a reporter as she is an operative with an agenda.... As for the whole "outing a source is a no-no and is never ever done" gambit, well, guess what? As emptywheel pointed out way back in the summer of 2005, Judith Miller has burned at least one source before (in this case, Amy Smithson), without needing to be hauled off to jail first.... Miller, as a person whose newspaper career spans three decades, should also be aware that in old-school journalism, if a source screws over a reporter with bad information, the reporter is free to out the source. In fact, it is the reporter's duty to out a lying source.... "A source lies to you, and you find out, you burn him. Period." And goodness knows that Judy's sources fed her the most egregious garbage over the years, as the corrections to her articles attest.

Now, Max Frankel must know all of this. He has to, he's a Timesman — one might almost say THE Timesman. But his loyalty to the paper, and to a disgraced ex-Timeswoman who brought shame upon the paper (and, I suspect, a touch of loyalty to the ideology espoused by Miller and her neocon friends), not to mention the utter refusal overall to admit that (just like with Whitewater and Wen Ho Lee) they were hosed by the Republican Noise Machine, is interfering with his vision. Otherwise I can't see how he would have let such a fundamentally dishonest piece as this one escape his keyboard.

The moment that exercised me most in Frankel's piece was, as I have said, this one, where Max Frankel writes that it was New York Times reporter Judy Miller's laziness that kept Scooter Libby's leaks from the National Intelligence Estimate from being a good thing for the country:

I. Lewis Libby Trial - The Washington Back Channel - Max Frankel - New York Times: Libby... brought [Judy Miller] selected excerpts from a top-secret National Intelligence Estimate (N.I.E.).... The editor in me cringed at [Miller's]... not writing anything.... She could have been the first to recognize... [the] bitter feud... [between] Cheney... [and] Tenet.... By following the trail... she could have produced a pretty good yarn...

Most reporters do not just lazily regurgitate such leaks [as Libby gave to Miller]; they use them as wedges to pry out other secrets.... A few more questions... [about] the N.I.E. would have exposed it as... deeply flawed.... [I]ntelligence experts were available to denounce the document as wrong...

But, Mr. Frankel, most reporters to whom people like Scooter Libby leak do lazily regurgitate such leaks. They certainly do not use them to pry out other secrets. If Scooter Libby had thought there was any chance that Judy Miller would have used his leak of the N.I.E. to expose it as deeply flawed, Scooter Libby would have kept his mouth shut.

Only confidence that the reporter will be a complaisant tool of the source's purposes induces the leak in the first place.

Reportorial laziness on the part of Judy Miller has nothing to do with it. Reportorial ethics has everything to do with it. Do reporters view their primary task as helping their sources to misinform the public? Or do reporters view their primary task as informing citizens? How did the New York Times come to employ somebody in whom Scooter Libby could have such confidence? And Scooter Libby did have enormous confidence in Judy Miller, enough confidence to attempt to suborn perjury by telling her that the two of them would stand or fall together:

Out West, where you vacation, the aspens will already be turning. They turn in clusters, because their roots connect them...

Max Frankel's cluelessness--pretense?--that this is not the case is the thing that allows him to steer his way to his desired conclusion:

The system is sloppy and breeds confusion.... there are and always have been both good and bad leaks.... [T]olerating abusive leaks by government is the price that society has to pay for the benefit of receiving essential leaks about government....

A more clued-in commentator than Frankel would have written that journalistic legal privileges depends on the existence of a community of journalists that polices itself--that rewards journalists who inform the public and punishes those who kneel to their political masters.

Defenders of Max Frankel are telling me that his major problem is that he has been too far away from Washington for too long. Frankel, his defenders argue to me, thinks that the press digs for and gets essential leaks and is sometimes snookered by abusive leaks in the process. He doesn't understand that things have changed since he covered Dean Rusk. He genuinely doesn't know that thirty-something New York Times reporters today don't see senators socially every week or so. He genuinely doesn't know it is the reporters who have demonstrated that these days it is the reporters who have demonstrated that they are complaisant tools of administration purposes who receive the lion's share of the leaks. The changes that have come about as a result of the greatly increased size of the press corps (so that there are multiple channels to leak through) would have had a powerful influence on the ecology of leaks even without the honing of the tools of journalist manipulation by Lee Atwater, Paul Begala, Karl Rove, and their ilk.

I don't think I buy it. Max Frankel is smart enough to know that if Washington and the New York Times still conformed to his image of them, that Judy Miller would right now being feted for her Pulitzer Prize-winning series: "How Bush and Cheney's Top Aides Fooled Themselves, the President--and Me--About Saddam Hussein's Nuclear Weapons Program."

Judy Miller has not written that series. Judy Miller will never write that series. And so I find myself, in the end, convinced that Emptywheel and Phoenix Woman are right to have lost patience with Max Frankel.