Sunday, January 09, 2005

Parody: Rudith Miller weighs in on journalism and Judith Miller's front page story in this morning's Times

Hi gang. My name is Rudith Miller, Rudy to everyone who's charmed by me -- and who isn't charmed by me? I'm a steam roller with gamine bangs! Note my pixie charms. Celebrate me.
As much as everything I could ever write about is actually about me, so is this! That's a technique I was taught at Hack University -- a great school if ever there was one! I learned so much from professors like Robert Novak.

I just thought I'd share a few tips with anyone who might be an aspiring journalist. I'm happy to pass on my wisdom because I'm not using it. I'm what's known as a "non-practicing reporter." But I'm not like those ex-Catholics attacking the Church. I just moved on to better and more humane things.

Our alumni is quite famous. It's a rare day I don't turn on the TV or the radio and spot one of
us pontificating in the "gatekeeper" voice we were all taught. Well not, all of us. Chris Matthews never quite managed to get that lesson down. He was one of the students who rode the short bus to Hack U. But hasn't he done a great job of overcompensating by bellowing? We're all very proud of him because the odds were against him.

I remember Professor Brit Hume hectoring him once about his strong hold on common sense and how that would only interfere with a successful journalism career.
If you watch Hardball, you'll see Chris slip every now and then. But always remember, he rode the short bus. Cut him a little slack.

At Hack U, I had a great deal of fun because we weren't ones to bury our noses in books, let me tell you! All facts and no fun was the motto of CJR -- not Hack U!

But I want to talk about Heather Rain Farrow. She was this little wisp of a girl -- one we all suspected was from Berkeley because she was just so out there with her long, straight blond hair and her bell bottoms and her love beads. She truly was Peggy Lipton's Julie on The Mod Squad. Only not cool enough to be a narc!

So Heather Rain had a really hard time fitting in. After the first semester, she was put on academic probation and she had a long talk with the dean of students. He explained that with her looks and a name like "Heather Rain Farrow" she might as well pack it in and step on over
to the Weatherman University where a young Matt Lauer (yes, he had a full head of hair back then!) was excelling in Charm 101 and Grinning Through Disasters.

Next thing I know, Heather Rain is studying me. Stalking me is more like it. At first it was flattering and, honestly, understandable. I was at the top of my class and I was, after all, me.

But when Heather Rain began dying her hair brown and speaking in my flat monotone, I began to suspect she was taking it a little too far.

One night I caught her in the dorm bathroom with a pair of pinkie shears. She'd chopped off all hair and added bangs. She looked like a carbon copy of me! I grabbed her by the shoulders and said, "Heather Rain, what the hell are you doing!" She fixed me with her squinty gaze and declared, "From now on call me Judith!"

I recoiled in shock. "Judith." Now some might argue she was just a big fan of that folk singer Judy Collins. I don't doubt that Heather Rain had a few albums by Collins in her vinyl collection.
But with her hair dyed my shade of brown, with my bangs and my monotone way of speaking (I was planning to go into broadcasting at that point and it was important you strip away any regional quality in your speaking voice), it was so obvious to me that "Judith" was trying to become Rudith! That would be me.

I remember being shocked by how quickly she began fitting in and how easily she was accepted into the group. That young Charles Gibson began squiring her all over campus which may have been fitting punishment since I understood he fell asleep all the time -- even during, if you get my meaning.

It was hard on me to see this cheap, bargain bin, knock-off of me so quickly embraced. I struggled through the program as "Judy" excelled. My heart wasn't in it anymore even
though I did manage to graduate with honors. Afterwards I went onto business school and eventually went into acquisitions and mergers because, honestly, I found it to be a more compassionate profession. Sure I break up companies and destroy pension programs but, on the up, I've yet to cheerlead anyone into a war. Helps me sleep at night.

Anyhoo, I've followed Heather Rain Farrow's career with some interest, or, as she likes to be called now, "Judy." Mainly because so many people have dubbed me "Judy's evil twin."
Evil twin? Come on people, how nefarious would I have to be to claim that title!!!!!!!! It's just not possible.

Today I'm reading the New York Times where I see a front page story by "Judy."
"Audits Criticize U.N. Handling Of Oil-for-Food." I thought I'd read through it to see if she was still practicing what we were taught at Hack U -- back when she was attempting to steal my identity. Identity theft is so common today but I believe Heather Rain pioneered it.

By the way, I carry those bangs off much better but then I don't look like the "before" shots for a Botox ad. And when people talk about my bangs, they cite Audrey Hepburn, not Sally Field!
It's the difference between looking gamine and looking like you just emerged from Super Cuts.

But let's get back to her story because I know she stole her tricks from me and if she's going to use them you should too.

First off, notice how she mentions numbers like "58 reports" and then goes on to note things like "many of which criticize how the aid program was administered."

Did Judy read 58 reports? I doubt it. Has she read "many" reports? I doubt it.

She gets to pretend she has because she's slipped in the apparent fact that the paper only had access to ten reports. That way, if she's called on it later, she can say, "I said I only had access to ten!" It's a cute little trick and one that TA Cokie Roberts used to stress whenever Professor Roger Mudd was under the weather.

As Cokie used to tell us, "You imply something repeatedly and it's not your fault that the reader misunderstands." It's called professionalism.

Want to know another trick of the trade?

Slam at the top of your story. That's the part that will make the front page. Slam and slam freely. If you're not slamming freely you're about as useful as Shaq on a free throw.
It's important to slam not just so you get your "props" from other journalists but also because your entire piece will not run on the front page.

By slamming early and often, you know your star turns will be remembered. It's the difference between being a reporter and a "star."

Heather Rain used to object to that as unfair and boy would Professor Novak chew her ass.
Well not just Heather Rain. For a two week period, she insisted upon being called "Squirrel" to honor a rodent that was run over in the student parking lot by that hot rodding Timmy Russert.
He had an early love for those muscle cars even back then!

But somewhere after she dropped Heather Rain and after she stopped calling herself "Squirrel," she obviously internalized Professor Novak's message.

Here's another tip, via visiting lecturer Newton Fulbright, "Don't rely on any named person for the early part." That is so true. What you write is all about you and no one's going to be saying "Judy got game!" if the knock out blow comes from someone you identify. I mean if Scoots Libby gets quoted readers are apt to remember him and not you. Besides, if people have to go on record, they might not be so eager to give you that beyond belief quote.

Chris Matthews (remember, short bus) used to have the biggest problem with this. That's probably why he never really made a name for himself in print journalism.

Now, if like "Judy," you've built your house on the sand of non-existant WMD, it is important that you present a dissenting voice or two -- at least until readers forget that all your trumped out stories never bore out.

So if you're in that phase you're going to have to offer dissenting voices in a long piece. I don't know what people expect from "Judy" -- I'm no fan but good God, people, she was practically commanding a unit in Iraq, issuing orders of where to go and what to do!

The expectations of readers can be so high. You've given them a paper, what more do they want -- truth??? Well when those faceless, unimportant readers question you, just ride it out by tossing in a dissenting quote or two. Just sprinkle it in for flavor. But never at the top. That way people who just read the front page don't have to be bothered with these nay sayers or facts.

"Judy" has that part down. You have to turn to page A8, inside the paper, to hear a dissenting voice. Silly people who persist in reading every word of the text will find out that all the declarative statements offered as fact at the top of the piece aren't as concrete as they might have seemed.

You can quote Paul Volcker, who's heading the investigation, saying that the audits "don't prove anything." You just do it down in your piece so that you've already left people with the impression that the audits do prove something, something very dire. And remember they already mistakenly think you've read all the reports so, even if they make it that far, they'll remember your strong "star turn" upfront more than anything else.

Some people see journalism as informing the public. At Hack U, we were always taught that we should see ourselves as prosecutors making opening statements. That's probably why we've never been ones to get behind the quaint notion of "innocent until proven guilty."

VIAWAP. That's a mnemonic device Professor Novak gave us to remember a core principle: Vendetta Is Ambition With A Purpose. I see "Judy" hadn't forgotten that.

Nor should she. Some on the right claim that the UN's insistence upon being fact based is because they are at war with the administration. "Judy," however, knows it's all about her and she'll grudge f--k them over until her dying day. I'll fault her for many things but she obviously internalized the VIAWAP motto and has been pushing this story since June of last year.

Now I want you to take a moment to appreciate the wonders of "Judy." Imagine if the Times had let that Gretchen Morgenson have a go at the story. (I understand Morgenson actually went to an accredited journalism school! Probably why she's never crossed over big on cable.)
I mean, the story's about audits, it's about companies, it could have gone to Morgenson and the business pages. Can you imagine what she might have written?

She'd probably open with Volkner saying the audits "don't prove anything" and "There's no flaming red flags in this stuff." And then what? I mean after you open with that, there's no story at all. Then the burden of proof is on the people attacking the UN. "Always open with allegations" as professor Herbert Phillbrick used to intone.

"Judy" took that to heart and it's driven her career long after the wheels fell off her cart. Did I mix metaphors? Blame it on the alumni reunion last spring where I bumped into Peggy Noonan.
She's a sweetie, that Peggy Noons, but why she insists upon cultivating that phoney voice, one that suddenly pops up in the 90s (and one which only sounds polished to dock workers, I'm sure), is something I'll never understand.

But back to "Judy." She started out at Hack University with the most obstacles to overcome of any student other than Matthews (who wore clip-on ties, by the way; remember -- short bus).
Little Heather Rain Farrow, whose "raps" about "peace, man" were always greeted with titters, is long gone. She's been replaced by "Judith Miller." She's run with my identity and won my begrudging respect for embodying all we were taught at Hack U. Now if only she'd drop those bangs.

[Note: As stated in the heading, this is parody. But should you encounter Judith Miller, feel free to call her "Heather Rain."]
[Note II: Voice has been changed to voices. Thanks Ben.]