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Vanity Fair's Judy Miller Rehab: Blame the Bloggers

Mar 13, 2006 | Updated May 25, 2011

There are three fundamental problems with Marie Brenner's 15-page piece on Plamegate and Judy Miller in the April Vanity Fair (hitting newsstands tomorrow):

1.) It's laughably biased. Brenner is a close friend of Miller -- she co-hosted a dinner for her on July 4th before Miller headed to jail, visited her at the Alexandria Detention Center, partied with her after her release, and is longtime friends with Miller's husband, who used to be Brenner's editor. The article is nothing more than a massive attempt to rehab the disgraced reporter.

But Brenner doesn't mention that she even knows Miller until 7 pages into the article and doesn't mention that they are friends until 11 pages in (long after painting a highly favorable picture of Judy as a misunderstood victim/martyr/heroine).

"At times," writes Brenner of Plamegate, "the complexities of reporters' commenting on one another's behavior had the feel of a taffy pull as friends wrote about friends while trying to exhibit detachment." That surely makes this piece the ultimate taffy pull.

Full disclosure: I have been friends with Brenner for thirty years -- I can't swear that she danced at my wedding, but she definitely attended it -- and I respect her loyalty to her friend. But that loyalty should be expressed privately, not by trying to rewrite history in the pages of a national magazine. Also, especially given our friendship, I find it telling that Brenner -- even though the Huffington Post's coverage of Plamegate is discussed repeatedly in the article -- never talked to me for her piece. Instead, the weekend before her deadline, she left me an obligatory voice mail message saying she had some questions for me; I promptly returned her call but never heard back.

This isn't journalism; it's a Sag Harbor circle jerk.

2.) It's shockingly incomplete and incoherent. In order to make her Plamegate narrative fit a predetermined frame of Judy as First Amendment martyr, Brenner has to leap over huge chunks of the story. Because of this, the article is both extremely basic -- Plamegate 101, seemingly written for folks who haven't picked up a newspaper or turned on a computer in the last couple of years -- and almost impossible to follow. If Brenner were your sole source of information, you'd have absolutely no idea what really happened with Miller and the Times. There is no mention of the unprecedented Times mea culpa about Miller's prewar coverage, and next to nothing on the internal struggle at the paper that saw Miller go from Judy of Arc, lauded in 15 Times editorials and compared to Rosa Parks, to a W 43rd Street pariah being publicly slammed by Times editors and columnists and shown the door. We get Floyd Abrams as avuncular Free Speech hero but no explanation of why he was eventually replaced by Bob Bennett as Judy's lead attorney. Maureen Dowd warrants the most minor of mentions, and, most bizarrely, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. -- long Judy's staunchest supporter -- isn't mentioned at all.

And since Brenner is so intent on casting Judy as a journalistic superhero (even though no one bought her in that role last time around), she needs to put her up against a villain -- and casts the dastardly blogosphere in that part. She cluelessly treats bloggers as some kind of monolithic entity, "a vast amoeba," while totally missing the point of the blogosphere -- its relentlessness and its willingness to go where the establishment media won't.

In Brenner's telling, "the noisy new democracy of the blogs" -- "Chalabi-haters, Rove fanatics, bloviators" -- is inaccurate, quick to judge, and unencumbered by conventional journalistic constraints.

Incredibly, Brenner sees no irony in accusing bloggers of being inaccurate and without editorial constraints while defending Miller, whose tragically inaccurate reporting, plastered all over the front page of the "paper of record," became an indispensable tool used by the White House to sell the Iraq war to the American people.

Leave it to Brenner to totally ignore this giant pink elephant in the middle of the room.

3.) Brenner's central thesis is wrong. Her overarching premise is that that Judy Miller went to jail for a noble cause -- the ability of reporters to protect confidential sources -- but the public and the press (led by those nasty bloggers) failed her and now it's open season on the free press.

"Traditionally," she writes, "there have been two generally recognized exceptions to journalistic privilege: matters of life and death and imminent actual threat to national security." But there is a third exception that Brenner conveniently leaves out, an exception spelled out in the ethical guidelines of the New York Times: "We do not grant anonymity to people who use it as cover for a personal or partisan attack." This was unequivocally the case with Plamegate. And, as the Times' ethical guidelines make clear, there is a world of difference between sources using confidentiality to blow the whistle on government or corporate misconduct, and sources using it to promote a war -- or to smear a critic of that war.

Even inaccurate, unedited, bloviating bloggers know that.

Brenner's piece is hyped as "the untold story of Plamegate." Turns out, there is nothing untold here -- but a whole lot that the untold story doesn't tell.