Friday, July 01, 2005

NYT: "Time Inc. to Yield Files on Sources, Relenting the U.S." (Adam Liptak) aka "JUDY STANDS ALONE!"

You knew it was coming. You knew it would be front paged. And in that regard, the New York Times doesn't let you down this morning:

With one of its reporters facing an imminent jail sentence, Time magazine said yesterday that it would provide documents concerning the reporter's confidential sources to a grand jury investigating the disclosure of the identity of a covert C.I.A. operative, Valerie Plame.
The magazine's decision to give in to the demands of federal prosecutors followed the Supreme Court's decision on Monday to reject appeals by the magazine and its reporter, Matthew Cooper, as well as a reporter for The New York Times, Judith Miller.

The above is from Adam Liptak's "Time Inc. to Yield Files on Sources, Relenting to U.S." in this morning's New York Times.

We warned you Thursday morning this was coming:

The issue of the corporation (Time's) is brought up in regards to whether or not they'll turn over the Cooper's notes is brought up. There's back and forth in the article, so let's provide context.
If history is any guide, Time Warner et al will not take a brave stand for the First Amendment in the face of a court order. They didn't require a court order to drop Ice-T's "Cop Killer" back in the nineties. (In one of the more idiotic business decisions, my opinion, the syngery conglomerate that can't get anything right cut off Warner Music. They no longer own it. However, it was owned in the nineties and it was the parent company bringing heat on the music division to dump "Cop Killer.") In addition Jimmy Iovine's skirmishes with Time Warner in the mid-nineties also indicate that free speech is not an issue near and dear to the whatever facsimile of a heart the corporation possesses."Context" (to use the article's term) would indicate that there's not much chance Time will stand strong in support of the First Amendment. But informing readers of that historical "context" might prevent a "JUDY STANDS ALONE!" shocker in the coming days if/when Time does cave.

"JUDY STANDS ALONE!" Did we get there today? Why yes, we did. Note the following from Liptak's article:

Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher of The Times, was critical of Time. "We are deeply disappointed by Time Inc.'s decision to deliver the subpoenaed records," Mr. Sulzberger said. "We faced similar pressures in 1978 when both our reporter Myron Farber and the Times Company were held in contempt of court for refusing to provide the names of confidential sources. Mr. Farber served 40 days in jail and we were forced to pay significant fines.
"Our focus is now on our own reporter, Judith Miller, and in supporting her during this difficult time."

"Poor Judy" coverage isn't working. Rebecca and I discussed this on the phone yesterday and she's noted some thoughts we had on the topic. From Rebecca's post:

the new york times needs to handle it differently as well. you can't humanize judith miller. it backfires on you. make her iconic. start making the issue the freedom of the press. use that space to give a historical essay on the freedom of the press. in fact, we think the paper should do a series of articles. not on the op-ed pages, not in editorials, as stories in the main section.
this isn't where they name check past press struggles, this is where they do a history. the thrust of the article is not 'poor judy!' but the freedom of the press. within those articles, the case is made repeatedly for the importance of a free press. judith miller is mentioned in some of them but it is in relation to the case.that's how the times gets behind this. not with yet another article about judy miller. no 1's buying it and they should have realized that a long time ago. if they're wanting to defend her, they need to do it via a news series on the press under attack in previous times.
they also need to grasp that not every 1 knows woodward & bernstein.
[. . .]
generations have come of age since watergate and earlier struggles are not well known to a great many people. the times would be doing a service to the public (and probably help stem the negative poll results) by making the case for a free press via an article or articles that informed readers of past battles and how they informed the public.

So do they do that this morning? No, they don't. They name check court battles. ""They" includes not only Liptak but also Sulzberger who name checks Farber. What were the issues in Myron Farber's court battle? What was at stake? Why does the case matter? Do they truly think tossing out a name that the general public doesn't know is in anyway helping Judith Miller?

Sulzberger needs to stop "helping" because as Liptak explains the case (again, Sulzberger merely name checks) it's not really one that's going to win people over to Miller's side:

Mr. Farber refused to supply his notes to a doctor on trial in New Jersey on charges that he killed patients by injecting them with curare. The doctor, Mario Jascalevich, was acquitted. Mr. Farber, now retired, recalled the efforts he and the paper had made to protect his notes, which reflected conversations with confidential sources.

The man was accused of killing patients. As you read on, you keep expecting to read "and the real killer was caught!" Doesn't happen. So the Times' big case here is that someone who may or may not have been guilty was acquitted because a reporter withheld notes. This is supposed to turn the tide on public opinion for Miller? This is being "helpful?"

The Times has bungled this from the start. They should have covered the outing but they stuck their heads in the sands. Once Miller was brought in by Patrick Fitzgerald, if they wanted to protect Miller, they should have immediately assigned a group of reporters to the case to figure out who did out Valerie Plame. They didn't do that. They're still not doing what they need to do.

I'm not a Miller fan (and Rebecca less so -- as she notes, I would like to see Miller avoid jail time but she, Rebecca, couldn't care one way or another). In twenty minutes we came up with a better game plan than the Times has had from day one.

The Times needs to sell this issue not as "we may be protecting someone who's guilty" (which is how they've sold it and how they sell it again today by bringing up Farber) but as a First Amendment case. You do that by getting the public on your side. To get the public on your side, you remind them of the history involved in the freedom of the press.

Not many will be swayed by a case where a doctor who may or may not have killed patients was aquitted. Quite the contrary, it's more likely to make readers think the Times is so out of it that they think their First Amendment principals override guilt and innocence. Polls consistently show an erosion in the public's trust towards the press. So while absolute First Amendment talk may be seen as brave, it's not helping Miller.

Now maybe everyone at the Times needs a break from the woman? I know readers (including myself) would enjoy a break from her constant grudge f**king of the UN coverage. But is her own paper trying to stab her in the back?

That's what the nonsense in this morning's paper does. Instead of calling up thoughts of how important a free press is to the nation, they want to waste time telling you that someone accused of mulitple murders was aquitted after a reporter refused to turn over his notes. They think that story will increase sympathy for Miller?

Bill Keller is infamous for his dismissal of bloggers as a "one man circle jerk" (and, again, let's hope he doesn't go to his grave being remembered for his use of the term "circle jerk"). What is the coverage on this but one long circle jerk?

Who is supposed to sway? Tales of person getting off on murder aren't going to woo support in this era where the more popular programs presume the guilt of the accused. (Link takes you to Ava and my review of CSI Miami.) Now as a philosophical debate among journalists, Farber's case might make a great starting point. Used to shore up support among an already jaded public, Farber's case is the last thing the Times needs to trot out.

The paper can't make the case on Miller. She's not sympathetic (and her efforts at being sympathetic backfire). When you can't argue the person, you argue the concept. (So keep Bumiller away from this story and assign real reporters who don't need to personalize each report.) What's the concept at stake here?

Whether or not the government has a right to know what the press discovered is the concept. That's what you punch in every day. That's what you offer historical examples on. That's what you educate the public about. The Times isn't doing that. Sulzberger (who is a friend of Miller's) was trying to be helpful. He failed. He failed miserably. Now maybe no one wants to tell "the boss" how to address the issue. That's fine if they're okay with Miller going to jail. But they've turned the paper over to this topic repeatedly and they've yet to figure out how to sell it to the public. Not a big surprise, the Times (outside the tsunami) hasn't had a great deal to proud of this year. (Individual reports that were successful have been noted here. I'd guess that's about one a day. Which may be grading the paper on a generous curve.)

But it's past time for the paper to call together an honest meeting on this topic and to not worry that Sulzberger or anyone's feelings might be hurt. They need to figure out the angle for this reporting (because they're not going to drop it). The angle is why a free press is important to the country. You don't argue that with acuittal's (unless you put into the story that the guilty person was eventually found). You don't argue that with "Poor Judy!" coverage.

She's sympathy-proof. Keller can rage about "arm chair media critics" all he wants, but he damn well knows the criticism of Miller. Acting as though it's not out there does no one a favor.
It's time they realized that Miller's support among the public (and not a great deal of people even know her name) is not huge. In fact, many people who know her byline know her as someone who's reporting is problematic (I'm being generous). To the public who's unaware of her, she's a reporter who won't hand over notes to the government.

Figure out how to sell the importance of not turning over information to the public and the Times could sway public opinion. That will mean realizing that those that didn't go to j-school (and some who did, see Rebecca's entry for my encounter with a journalism school graduate who'd didn't know the names Woodward & Bernstein and was a member of the working press!)
outnumber those who did and that to get their support for a free press, the paper needs to be hitting hard on why a free press is important.

I had an e-mail late last night from someone who said that no one at the paper seems to know what to do with this story. (The person had read Rebecca's entry.) It shows. It really, really shows. In each report, it shows.

Today we also get this name check, from Liptak, not Sulzberger:

The case represents the starkest confrontation between the press and the government since 1971, when the Supreme Court refused to stop The Times and The Washington Post from publishing a classified history of the Vietnam War known as the Pentagon Papers. And legal experts said yesterday that they knew of no other instance in modern journalistic history in which a major news organization announced that it would disclose the identities of its confidential sources in response to a government subpoena.

Liptak doesn't round it out (the way he did Sulzberger's case). 1971? Name checking the Pentagon Papers is supposed to make the case for Miller? That's thirty-four years ago (as always, check my math). Again, that might be stressed in j-schools (in some journalism schools) but the Times fails to grasp that for most people in public schools in the seventies and early eighties, Vietnam was a non-topic. Teachers didn't generally rush to get to that section of the history books. (My guess is that many avoided that section). The conflict divided the nation. We never got honest about exploring it and we never healed as a nation. (I'm speaking in general terms.) As Jane Fonda has frequently noted, we never seriously addressed how we got there. (In terms of films, Coming Home addressed the homefront, Platoon addressed the battle in Vietnam. Both were successful films. But the only moderately successful project dealing with how we got over there was HBO's version of A Bright and Shining Lie.)

So name checking the Pentagon Papers today was useless. Can a case be made for the Pentagon Papers? Absolutely, but to do that, you make the case, you don't rely on shout outs. And making the case means educating about why the case was important, not (wrongly) assuming that everyone knows the issues at the stakes.

Ideally, the paper should call an emergency meeting tomorrow and work like hell to get something in the Sunday paper. Forget the Saturday paper, too few read it. Put it on the front page of the Sunday paper, a perspective piece on the freedom of the press that looks at the issue historically. And hit on that every day leading up to Wednesday's court room appearance.

"But if we do that," someone might argue, "Fox 'News' will tear us apart!" You're probably right, they probably will. (Then again, they may take the pass that so many, other than David Corn, have taken on this case.) If they were to shoot it down, great. That's more talk about this. And the Times needs to raise the profile on this issue.

A front page historical series on the freedom of the press will also lead the mainstream to explore it. That means on Today, for instance, you'll get two guests. One will speak of the importance of a free press, the other will shoot down the idea. (The "balance" the mainstream press has so pushed bites them in the ass. It's poetic.) Doesn't matter, the issue is getting out there. As for any concern that the paper might be seen as self-focused, the reporting on this already has been. It's chosen it's path and with five days until Wednesday (check my math) it's way too late to worry about that.

Members who've been upset with my past remarks that Miller shouldn't go to jail have a right to their feelings. Rebecca and I discussed strategies yesterday and I didn't comment on it here. Didn't intend to even note Rebecca's entry unless a member asked for it to be highlighted. I assumed that the paper would be having similar discussions. Obviously, they didn't.

But for those members who are bothered by this entry, you've got a right to be. I won't say "get over it!" or tell you that you're wrong. I'm justifying this entry on my end with the handling of this topic is yet another indication of how out of touch the paper so often is. Hiring evangicals to write for the paper won't change that. Opening up divisions in "heartland" areas that voted for Bully Boy won't change that. An article by Felicity Barringer was praised on Sunday and we noted (Ava and I) that she walked you through the topic. Too often, the paper fails to do that. (It also fails to achieve the "balance" it strives for. But that's another issue.)

With the Miller coverage, the paper has dedicated itself to this topic. And they've done a very poor job. (Which goes beyond Liptak and it's a shame that he's the one stuck writing on this topic this week. It goes beyond him.) (And for all anyone knows, his drafts have included the very things that the Times should have been including and they've been dropped by someone other than Liptak.)

But if the Times can so majorly screw up coverage on an issue that they are so obviously vested in, it goes to bigger problems at the paper. Victor Navasky, in A Matter of Opinion, notes a job offer from the Times that came via bumping into someone on Martha's Vineyard. Bob Somerby would probably be able to build a strong argument out of that annecdote. I doubt (I could, as always, be wrong) that his take on it would be proof of "liberals!" It would, however, be proof of how a limited number of opinions exist at the Times. (That's not a slam at Navasky. And certainly not intended as one at Somerby either.) The paper is so busy running in its own circles, it really has trouble relating to people outside of them. Which is why Marcia can catch the obvious this week, that a report featured not one woman's voice as though the issues in Italy mattered only to males living in Italy, but an editor doesn't notice it. It's why the Times doesn't blink when it runs a trophy wife story in the Business pages (or the Sunday Magazine for that matter). We could go into this in depth but I'll just refer you to Gore Vidal's essays and note that on this topic, one the paper cares about, they're falling into old patterns that don't work.

If they want the public to care, they need to explain what is historically at stake. Thus far, they've failed to do that. This goes to larger problems at the Times and that's how I can justify this entry (and I could be wrong -- if you want to disagree, privately or to share with the community e-mail with your take on it -- and visitors need to note the policy that you're only quoted if you give your permission).

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