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Miller Gets Distinguished Company in the Hot Seat

<i>Washington Post</i> reporter Bob Woodward in a July 2005 appearance on <i>Meet the Press</i>.
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward in a July 2005 appearance on Meet the Press.

The old saw about journalists says they're supposed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Right now, it's the news media that stands accused of being too comfortable. And media executives are the ones feeling too afflicted.

Bill Keller and Arthur Sulzberger Jr. -- the executive editor and publisher of The New York Times, respectively -- have been taking rhetorical body blows over the favored status of Judith Miller. She's the Pulitzer-winning Times reporter who was forced out of the paper this month after her failure to tell editors about her interviews with former White House aide I. Lewis Libby in the Valerie Plame CIA leak case.

For two years, beginning with the controversy over her coverage of weapons of mass destruction until almost the bitter end, Keller aggressively defended Miller. She was described as a special case, an authoritative figure who had brought great scoops to the paper's pages. Only as she negotiated her departure did Keller acknowledge that he regretted he hadn't known more, and that the paper's leadership had not exercised better control of her. But at an appearance at Princeton University this week, according to the Daily Princetonian, Keller plaintively asked, "What other industry labors so hard to air its dirty laundry?"

Sulzberger backed away even from that during his recent appearance on The Charlie Rose Show, in which the publisher kept saying Miller wasn't the story. Sulzberger said her role in the CIA case was "a small bore issue in the big scheme of things." He said it was nothing like the Jayson Blair case, in which a young reporter lied to editors, and plagiarized and fabricated articles.

He meant to minimize the Miller case with that statement, but to others, it was precisely wrong: Many journalists, including some at The Times itself, say the mishandling of a senior correspondent who helped define the paper's coverage about the threat posed by Iraq before the war is a far more serious breach of trust.

In the wake of Sulzberger's appearance, media critics and bloggers attacked -- as they have throughout the Miller part of the Plame leak case. The rant-o-rific Jack Shafer of Slate argued, "Instead of responding to Rose's unusually persistent questions, Sulzberger wheels away from them like a White House flack and attempts to smother the inquiry with words that make it seem as if they've been resolved."

The leadership of The Times finally got a break later this week, with the revelation that the most famous print journalist in America -- who just happens to work for its chief competitor -- also had failed to tell editors about his interviews with unnamed sources in the CIA leak case. That would be Bob Woodward of The Washington Post, who had been working on a book at the time. And suddenly Post executive editor Leonard Downie was the one trying to keep the lid on simmering grievances against a star reporter. Woodward initially refused to answer questions on the record from reporters in his own newsroom for an account of his testimony this week -- releasing a written statement to them instead.

On Wednesday, Downie told NPR it's important to let The Post's talented journalists pursue outside reporting projects -- often leading to scoops for the newspaper.

"Bob is just, I guess, the biggest example of that on staff, of the many people who do this -- because he's done so many books, because his books are best-sellers, because he's so well known, and because he has extraordinary access as a reporter," Downie said.

But Downie said he was seeking a way to make sure his top reporter -- although a masthead editor -- was keeping his bosses in the loop.

"It is a complex relationship -- there's no doubt about it," Downie said. "In this particular case, he made a mistake."

And the critics came out for Woodward and Downie, too.

Rem Rieder, the editor of the American Journalism Review, wrote he's been long troubled by Woodward's "dual role as Post scoopmeister and assistant managing editor on the one hand, and Bob Woodward Inc., producer of numerous best-selling books, on the other.

"Woodward has been criticized over the years for withholding juicy tidbits from The Post for use in his books. It makes you wonder where his loyalty lies," Rieder added. "And by keeping silent about the Plame leakage, he casts himself as an independent operative accountable to no one."

The world of public broadcasting has its own version. Kenneth Tomlinson is the former chairman of the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. He believed PBS and NPR offered programs with a liberal bias -- and a recent inspector general's report shows how vigorously he sought to change that. More evidence arrives, thanks to the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board.

Tomlinson wanted to build a PBS show around its writers. PBS did too, but, as Tomlinson wrote in e-mails to Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Paul Gigot, he didn't trust PBS's CEO and president Pat Mitchell. (The Journal posted the e-mails on its Web site.)

Tomlinson wrote, "I'm trying to pressure Pat Mitchell to produce a real conservative counterpart to [Bill] Moyers." Moyers is the liberal commentator who was then the host of the weekly PBS newsmagazine Now.

CPB is a private corporation that directs federal money to PBS and NPR member stations (and provides seed money for a few NPR programs). As a CPB board member, Tomlinson was prohibited by federal statute from becoming personally involved in the creation of specific public broadcasting shows. An inspector general's report found he had broken that law in pursuing the Wall Street Journal show.

Tomlinson hasn't responded to repeated requests for comment, though he rejected the report's findings. But PBS released this statement Thursday: "More than anything else, the revelations in the emails clarify the intent and actions of the former chairman of the CPB. For him to have been the agent of such pressure is, at its simplest, inappropriate."

Tomlinson had already completed his term as board chairman in September; he was still on the board, however -- until earlier this month, when he was forced to resign altogether after the report began circulating. In public broadcasting's case, the critic in chief no longer has a seat at the table.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.