Judith Miller and the Politicization of the Press
President Donald Trump, and by association the GOP, seemed to have cornered the market of discrediting and damaging the integrity of America’s press. In what seems to have become a uniquely conservative phenomenon, reporters, news anchors and journalists of all kinds have found themselves under attack, as the current administration aggressively pursues leakers of government information and advocates for the incarceration of those who dare to write bad things about our government.
It is easy to politicize an issue that at the moment seems to fall so resoundly along party lines. Much like issues of race and racism, the common discourse regarding the freedom of the press is usually summed up as Republican : anti-press and Democrat : pro-press. But following a historical timeline, this dichotomy breaks down around December of 2003. Both parties have always politicized press freedoms, and in doing so both parties have always hurt the press. And by association both parties have hurt our country’s fragile democratic experiment.
To tell this story however it is crucial to consider the events of March 2003, nine months prior to December 2003. On March 19, 2003, the United States invaded Iraq, after President George W. Bush announced the existence of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) harbored by Iraqi-dictator Saddam Hussein. The veracity of this claim was dubious to some. In July, 2003, US diplomat Joseph Wilson, who worked with both Bush Jr. and Clinton administrations, expressed in an op-ed for The New York Times his own doubts on the existence of WMDs in Iraq. Wilson had been sent to Niger on behalf of the United States’ government to investigate the country’s yellow-cake uranium mines, and reports that Niger had sold some of their uranium to the Iraqis.
According to Wilson, Niger’s uranium mines were not capable at this time of transporting uranium to Iraq. In addition, Wilson had never seen the intelligence report that had described the potential sale of uranium. He ssaidays that news reports had cast doubts on the validity of the intelligence report.
Only eight days after Wilson’s op-ed ran in The New York Times, and presumably in response to the contents of said op-ed, columnist Robert Novak ran an op-ed of his own, also in The Times. In his piece, Novak reveals that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, is a CIA agent, thereby destroying Ms. Plame’s career and any chance of her ever working in that capacity as an agent again. Immediately critics of the Bush administration began to suspect White House involvement in the leaking of Plame’s identity, as retribution for Wilson’s inflammatory op-ed just days earlier. According to the Washington Post, prior to the publication of Novak’s op-ed, only six reporters knew of Valerie Plame’s identity. One of these reporters was Judith Miller of The New York Times.
Let’s return now, four months after Plame’s identity was revealed, to December of 2003. The Justice Department had appointed Patrick J. Fitzgerald as special counsel to the Valerie Plame case, to investigate the circumstances of the leak. During the course of his investigation, Fitzgerald subpoenaed reporters at The New York Times, the Washington Post, TIME Magazine and NBC News. His subpoenaing of reporters outraged many in the media, who believed Fitzgerald’s actions encroached on their ability to do their job. A New York Times piece written September of 2004 described Fitzgerald as a “prosecutor with a reputation for toughness who appears unusually willing to take on journalists.” The most renowned of these subpoenaed reporters would soon become aforementioned Judith Miller.
The New York Times piece highlights a more insidious issue with the Valerie Plame affair. At first glance, whether or not the Bush administration had clear evidence of WMDs in Iraq, and whether or not they outed a CIA agent whose husband dared to counter that narrative, seems to be the main story here. And without a doubt, it is. However, in the fervor that surrounded the explosive allegations against the Bush administration, basic norms between the judiciary and the press were violated.
Judith Miller was one of the six reporters who knew Valerie Plame’s identity prior to Robert Novak’s expose op-ed in The New York Times. She had not published anything regarding Plame. Special Counsel Fitzgerald however wanted to know how Miller knew Valerie Plame’s identity prior to Novak’s op-ed, and believed that Miller’s sources would lead him to the source of the leak. He subpoenaed Miller to testify before a grand jury, and when asked the name of her source, she refused to answer. She had promised her source confidentiality and she intended to maintain that promise. Fitzgerald said she was “defying the law,” and sent Miller to jail, where she would spend 85 days for refusing to divulge the name of her source.
Judith Miller joined the ranks of journalists who would rather go to jail than compromise their relationship with their sources, and compromise their source’s trust. According to James Risen, a former New York Times reporter, at this time no one from the left batted an eye at Fitzgerald’s aggressive subpoenaing of journalists, or at the subsequent jailing of Judith Miller. Journalists and their sources were simply seen as expendable tools to investigate a potential White House leak. The lack of respect for the press’s role in our democracy was, and continues to be staggering. Journalists, despite having no special protection under the law, have to be able to guarantee confidentiality for their sources. Without that, they are unable to do their job.
In light of today’s climate towards journalism, the purpose of this essay is not to say that what President Trump and the GOP are doing to journalism’s credibility and function in this country is not wrong. It is. The purpose of this essay is also not to present a foil to those on the left who argue that the right is dangerously persecuting journalism and journalists.
Instead, the purpose of this essay is to point out that both the left and the right have recklessly pursued journalists, the left going so far as to put Judith Miller in jail for 85 days. The purpose of this essay is to underline the pointlessness of politicizing the politicization of the press. It is not just one side, and it never has been just one side responsible. Pointing fingers along party lines does not and has not helped journalists do their jobs. For those truly invested in ensuring the United States continues to have a fair, free and independent press, specific individuals, policies, and in President Trump’s case, tweets, need to be called out for what they are -- attempts at destroying the credibility of journalism in this country.
In the case of Judith Miller, after 85 days in jail, her source, Scooter Libby, sent her a waiver allowing her to reveal his name in her grand jury testimony. Libby was Vice President Dick Cheney’s top aide, and would eventually be found guilty of lying to a grand jury, obstructing the investigation in the Valerie Plame leak, and four felony counts of making false statements to the FBI.
In response to Miller’s decision to go to jail rather than reveal her source, Judge Thomas Hogan, who presided over the grand jury, likened this journalistic practice, or even tradition, to the logic of a selfish child.
“That’s the child saying: ‘I’m still going to take that chocolate chip cookie and eat it. I don’t care.”
As she was led out of the courtroom and taken to jail, Miller address Judge Hogan.
“If journalists cannot be trusted to guarantee confidentiality, then journalists cannot function and there cannot be a free press.”
Contemporary journalists should all aspire to uphold the values of the first amendment as bravely and as selflessly as Judith Miller. It is a shame however that journalists are forced to choose between these values and their own personal freedoms. Contemporary judges and politicians, of both parties, should do their part to ensure that journalists never have to make that choice.