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Gary Younge
Support for Miller exposes rift at New York Times

Delivering the keynote speech at the Online News Association last week the publisher of the New York Times, Arthur Sulzberger, spoke about the need to "upgrade the ethical standards of journalism". The first clause of a journalist's contract with the reader, he insisted, is "my first responsibility is to the truth".

Half of the questions that followed concerned the future of New York Times reporter Judith Miller, whose reporting and alleged dissembling before the grand jury during the recent Valerie Plame case has attracted intense criticism.

"Do you believe the New York Times failure to fire Judy Miller has affected your credibility as a journalistic organisation?" asked one journalist.

"No," answered Mr Sulzberger before qualifying his response. "There is no question that there has been an effect on the way people are viewing the Times because of the Judy Miller situation ... this story is not over. Events are changing rapidly."

Miller, whose reporting has been publicly slated by her paper's editor, reader's editor and one of its senior columnists, is now embroiled in intense negotiations with the paper's management over the terms of her severance.

According to the New York Observer and sources with knowledge of the negotiations, Miller is demanding the right to reply to her critics in an opinion piece and a non-disparagement agreement as condition of her departure. Otherwise she has threatened to return to work. She has been on leave since her release a month ago after spending 85 in jail days for refusing to reveal her source in the Valerie Plame case.

Given the very public criticism from her colleagues her return is regarded as more of a bargaining position than a tenable proposition. In the run up to the Iraq war Miller's reporting was widely slated for being insufficiently critical of the Bush administration's claims that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Last year the paper issued a public apology for its Iraq coverage in which three of the five articles it mentioned bore her name. Bill Keller said that when he became editor, following the Jayson Blair scandal in 2003, he told Miller to stay away from security-related stories but she continued to write them.

The paper stood by her when she went to jail but neither Keller nor Mr Sulzberger asked her any substantive questions about the nature of her contact with her source. Accounts of both her interviews with Lewis "Scooter" Libby and her testimony have since undermined her veracity as both a witness and a journalist. At the grand jury she failed to remember who gave her the name "Valerie Flame" that was in her notebook and only "recalled" one meeting with Mr Libby after she had been ordered to return to the stand.

Returning to work, say insiders, would exacerbate an already tense atmosphere at the newspaper about how it has handled her and undermine the editor. Columnists Maureen Dowd and Byron Calame have essentially called for her to be fired or removed from her reporting role. Keller told staff in a memo that she misled her editors and that he had "several regrets" about how he dealt with her. Miller has branded Keller's memo "ugly" and "seriously inaccurate".

The situation is further complicated by the fact that Miller is a good friend of Mr Sulzberger. "Arthur's social closeness to Judy is making it hard for him to see things clearly," says Doug McGill, editor of the online news website, The McGill report, who worked at the Times for 10 years as a reporter and subeditor.

Times staffers say they would not like to see her return but would not like the paper submit to further demands. "They could put her on a shelf somewhere and give her nothing to do," said one staffer who did not wish to be named. "But I don't think anyone wants to see the paper capitulate to her."

Others argue that Miller, while culpable, reflects a broader problem at the paper. "The Times is delusional about its role as a player and its access to exclusive information from high level sources," said one former staffer. "That is what they wanted and that is what Judy offered them. In the end it comes down to Arthur but no one can say that because he owns the paper."

"There is much greater gravity to this than the Jayson Blair scandal," says McGill. "This was the basis on which we went to war."

Dowd on Miller

She never knew when to quit. That was her talent and her flaw. Sorely in need of a tight editorial leash, she was kept on no leash at all, and that has hurt this paper and its trust with readers. She more than earned her sobriquet, Miss Run Amok.

Judy's stories about WMD fit too perfectly with the White House's case for war.

She was close to Ahmad Chalabi, the conman who was conning the neocons to knock out Saddam so he could get his hands on Iraq, and I worried that she was playing a leading role in the dangerous echo chamber that former Senator Bob Graham dubbed "incestuous amplification". Using Iraqi defectors and exiles, Chalabi planted bogus stories with Judy and other credulous journalists.

Even last April, when I wrote a column critical of Chalabi, she fired off an email to me defending him.

When Bill Keller became executive editor in the summer of 2003 he barred Judy from covering Iraq and WMD issues. But he admitted in the Times's Sunday story about Judy's role in the Plame leak case that she had kept "drifting" back. Why did nobody stop this drift?

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