Judith Miller up close

During the Society of Professional Journalists annual convention in Las Vegas I had the opportunity to photograph New York Times reporter Judith Miller for the organization’s magazine, Quill. Miller was there to accept a First Amendment Award from the Society, give a speech and take questions from the conventioneers.

I would love to write more about my experience, including some of my thoughts about the whole Judith Miller situation. Time is limited, though, as I organize and finalize plans for this Friday’s Cincinnati SPJ banquet (wanna come?). But suffice it to say that I think she’s done a wonderful thing for the collective “we” of journalists and, in turn, a great service to the public. Talking with an attorney-friend of mine the other day I referred to her as a martyr for all of us who believe in a strong First Amendment, adding that, for now, she’s my personal Jesus Christ of Journalism. She went to jail for 85 days so I wouldn’t have to.

Frankly, no matter your opinion of her reporting leading up to the war (and, believe-you-me, there’s plenty of blame to go around for much of the media covering the build-up), this is not the issue at hand. Not even close. Judy Miller stood hard-and-fast on an unwavering principle of journalism: Promises are promises.

The public is better served by these agreements – no matter how big or small. If anonymous sources cannot be protected I will be one of many journalists and other media professionals who will welcome you to the spun, press-release’d, press-conference’d, sound-bite’d and vanilla version of the world where everything is vetted, cross-checked, approved, plotted, conferred, manipulated, misinformed, calculated and white-washed and made-for-TV into a one-world-view of the, well, everything. Gone will be investigative reports of any substance, insider information on the government and corporations and the underbelly of anything. Without protection in some circumstances who would talk?

As a journalist people tell me things everyday that lead me on ideas for stories. Some make it in the paper, other’s don’t. Not that every tip needs the utter and rare protection of being anonymous under the scrutiny of a grand jury – nor do I believe many sources think it would ever be an issue. But it could be. Easily. Watergate would never, ever have happened in this climate. Woodward and Bernstein weren’t star reporters at the time they started meeting with Mark Felt, the famous “Deep Throat,” in a parking garage. They were good journalists, keeping their word to an anonymous source for 30 years – and only until Felt revealed who he was. Watergate, keep in mind, in the end, was really just about a run-of-the-mill burglary. Those happen all the time. It was just the people who were involved and what they were burglarizing that made it into such a big story. Nobody died, some people lied and everyone – except those who died later on – are all alive. Today, in 2005, we’re talking about stuff on a little grander scale than that. War, invading other countries, revealing the name of an undercover C.I.A. operative, dead American soldiers. Wish we were worried about little break-ins at the Watergate Hotel. My God, how simple life would be…

As a working journalist, past newspaper staff reporter and an active member of the media community, you do not want promises by journalists to be so easily dissolved. Judy Miller, like her or not, stood and stands for something. Something so important and so critical to good, solid and crucial journalism that much of the public does not know, care or understand what exactly has transpired, much less why it’s so important to them. But it is.

Sadly, many talking heads – including one surprisingly misguided Harvard professor this week on the radio program “The Al Franken Show” was dastardly wrong and misinformed on the situation and continued to spread more misinformation to a national audience. That stuff has got to stop. I generally expect and receive better from Franken.

If you listen to Judy Miller, her explanations seem very plausible, the dots match up and paint a very clear picture. She and her newspaper weren’t doing this for no more reason than to stand up for what’s right and what’s important to the media, and, in return, to the public. Miller’s comments to the SPJ convention Monday were recorded by C-SPAN and could have been obtained before this guy went on the show. The good Harvard prof obviously had not heard her comments from the convention.

If you look into Miller’s eyes, hear her talk and let her bear out the minute details of her situation, it makes perfect sense. Not an opportunist, a plotting, manipulative person or journalist. Doing her job? Yes. Competitive? Probably. But you want a competitive press, don’t you?

I commend her for actions, her courage and her willingness to ride out this storm and, above all, her outstanding journalism ethics. And those who suggest otherwise, I think, might be not looking at the big and the little picture. It’s high time they did.

Photo Captions
All photos Copyright 2005 by Joe Wessels
In two photos Judith Miller discusses her situation at the SPJ convention before joining a panel of other journalists in similar situations.

Patricia Hurtado – a reporter with Newsday – discusses her battle to stay out of a court case she was covering during a panel with the AP’s Josef Hebert and The New York Times’ Judith Miller. Attorneys involved with the case subpoenaed her to testify so she could no longer cover the trial, she said. Far right, media law attorney Bruce Sanford who also addressed the audience.

In one photo, Miller talks with Associated Press reporter Josef Hebert, also involved in a subpoena case similar to Miller’s, but with less attention. They were on a panel together at the convention.

Miller holds hands across the table with an audience member at the SPJ convention who heard her speak.

A crowd rushes the stage after Miller’s panel to get one-on-one time. Miller addresses the crowd.

After leaving the conference hall, Miller spends time with Cleveland-based freelance writer Wendy Hoke to be interviewed for Quill, SPJ’s magazine (two photos).

Author: Joe Wessels

Joe Wessels is a freelance journalist and photographer. Wessels covers local news events for Thomson Reuters news service and features for About.com's Cincinnati Guide site, plus is the executive director of hyperlocal news site, iRhine.com. He wrote for The Cincinnati Post, covering Cincinnati City Hall and Hamilton County government and wrote a weekly political column, which continued weekly at Cincinnati CityBeat. Previously, he was a reporter for the Cincinnati Business Courier and writes or has written for several publications in Cincinnati and around the country including The Cincinnati Enquirer, Las Vegas Review-Journal, Cincinnati Magazine, Cincy Magazine and the Sacramento News & Review. He is a native of Colerain Township, one of Cincinnati's western suburbs, and now lives in Over-the-Rhine near downtown Cincinnati. He has a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology and a journalism writing certificate from the University of Cincinnati. He also graduated from Colerain High School, is an avid photographer, news junkie and was once a roller rink disc jockey, and sometimes rides a scooter around town.

3 thoughts on “Judith Miller up close”

  1. What a whirlwind, Joe! Still trying to make sense of it all for my story. Thanks for partnering with me on this assignment. Love the blog!
    Wendy

  2. I’m still not convinced, Joe.

    Right now I feel as though Judith Miller is someone with an inflated sense of self-importance than a defender of the First Amendment. And more than anything, this whole debacle is making our profession look worse.

    You’ve written nothing here that convinces me otherwise. But maybe I should have been there to look into her eyes …

    This Washington Post quote is some interesting food for thought:

    “Note to reporters: There is nothing intrinsically noble about keeping your sources’ secrets. Your job, in fact, is to expose them. And if a very senior government official, after telling you something in confidence, then tells you that you don’t have to keep it secret anymore, the proper response is “Hooray, now I can tell the world” — not “Sorry, that’s not good enough for me, I need that in triplicate.” And if you’re going to go to jail invoking important, time-honored journalistic principles, make sure those principles really apply.”

Leave a Reply