Book review: The Story: A Reporter’s Journey

A ‘New York Times’ reporter who made (and was) front page news tells it again

By Terry McDermott  /  NY Times News Service

Thu, Apr 09, 2015 - Page 11

In late 2002 and through 2003, Judith Miller, an investigative reporter at the New York Times, wrote a series of articles about the presumed presence of chemical and biological weapons and possible nuclear material in Iraq. Critics thought the articles too bellicose and in lockstep with the George W Bush administration’s march to war. They all included careful qualifiers, but their overwhelming message was that Saddam Hussein posed a threat.

Miller’s defense of her work then was straightforward: she reported what her sources told her. She has now written a book-length elaboration of that defense, The Story: A Reporter’s Journey. The defense is no better now than it was then.

The Story, as anodyne a title as one could imagine, briefly sketches Miller’s early life before devoting itself to a more detailed description of her career. She came from a troubled home in Nevada and grew into an intrepid young woman who, she writes, liked adventure, sex and martinis.

With very little experience, she joined the Washington bureau of the Times in 1977 as a reporter, a prized assignment, largely because the newspaper was facing a lawsuit accusing it of sex discrimination, she writes. The chapter describing this is titled The New York Times, the Token. She was very raw and her early work showed it. An editor told her she was sloppy and unprofessional. She learned professionalism fast enough that in 1983 she was posted to Cairo, one of the first women to head an international bureau for the Times.

‘THIRSTING FOR WAR’

Correspondents in Cairo are typically charged with covering the whole of the Arab world, from West Africa to Iraq. Sometimes, non-Arab Iran is thrown in just for fun. This is an impossible if enthralling job and, in Miller’s telling, she fell hard for it. It was “thrilling” and “exhilarating,” she writes.

Miller recounts longstanding friendships with, among others, King Hussein of Jordan, who failed in an attempt to teach her waterskiing.

She was one of the earliest mainstream journalists to report on growing radicalization within Islam. She was also one of the earliest to report on the difficulties that could be imagined when the new radicals crossed paths with another emerging problem — the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. This became a subject she would return to throughout her career.

Miller devotes several chapters, by far the most given to any subject, to her coverage of Iraq. She had missed the first Persian Gulf war, she writes, stranded in Saudi Arabia. She fought hard to be included in coverage of the next one. The string of exclusive articles she produced before the Iraq war had the effect of buttressing the Bush administration’s case for invasion.

She had built her career on access. She describes finding, cultivating and tending to powerfully situated sources. She writes that she did not, as some critics of her prewar reporting supposed, sit in her office and wait for the phone to ring. She pounded the pavement. And an ambitious reporter with the power, prestige and resources of a large news organization behind her can cover a lot of road.

Opponents of the Iraq invasion and media critics of her reporting accused her of being a secret neoconservative thirsting for war. Whatever her actual politics, though, the agenda that comes through most strongly here is a desire to land on the front page. She rarely mentions an article she wrote without noting that it appeared on the front page or complaining that it did not.

During the war, she writes, she was the sole reporter embedded with the military team charged with finding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. It failed, meaning so had she. Miller concedes that the Bush administration’s case for war was built largely on Iraq’s presumably ambitious weapons program.

Miller’s main defense is that the experts she relied upon — intelligence officials, weapons experts, members of the Bush administration and others — were wrong about Hussein’s weapons. She acknowledges being wrong but not making any mistakes. She quotes herself telling another reporter: “If your sources were wrong, you are wrong.” This is where she gets stuck.

Journalists, especially those who have a talent for investigative work, are taught early to write big, to push the story as far as possible. Be careful; nail the facts; be fair, but push hard. Nobody pushed harder than Miller. In this case, she wound up implicitly pushing for war.

‘SAD AND FLAWED’

The final section of The Story deals with Miller’s role in the Valerie Plame affair, her refusal to identify a source (for an article she never wrote), her jailing because of that refusal, and finally her forced resignation from the Times in 2005.

As she describes it, she wasn’t simply abandoned but thrown overboard. This seems partly because of politics and institutional embarrassment, but also partly because of her personality. Almost every investigative reporter is in some way difficult to deal with. Miller was no exception. She offended colleagues on the way up, she says, and they delighted in her failure when she fell down.

To Miller’s credit, this is not a score-settling book, although Bill Keller, the executive editor who she says forced her out of the Times, gets walked around the block naked a couple of times and competing reporters receive just-for-old-times’-sake elbows to their rib cages.

That doesn’t mean she has made peace with the end of her career at the Times. It was a devastating exile for a proud and influential reporter. Cast out of the journalistic temple, she says she felt “stateless,” and from the evidence here she remains a bit lost. This sad and flawed book won’t help her be found.