Saturday, October 15, 2005

'NYT' Columnists Explain Lack of Words on Miller

By Joe Strupp

Published: October 14, 2005 1:45 PM ET

NEW YORK: With all of the recent opining over Judith Miller's jailing and release and The New York Times' approach to handling it, a group of voices that have been nearly silent on the matter is the Times' own Op-Ed columnists.

Among the eight regular contributors to the Times' prestigious opinion page, only one -- Frank Rich -- has written anything about Miller since her jailing in early July. John Tierney penned a column July 16 about the overall Valerie Plame leak investigation that led to Miller's jailing, but it did not even mention the Times reporter's name. Tierney spent most of his space contending that the issue was not even worth looking at, dubbing it "Nadagate."

Since then, only former columnist William Safire and retired Senator Robert Dole have written about the case on the Op-Ed page, with both supporting Miller.

So why have the newspaper's own viewpoint writers, whose opinions count for so much, stayed almost entirely silent? E&P interviewed four of the eight columnists in recent days, and each denied being discouraged from writing about Miller by their superiors, as some of the Times' critics have alleged.

Frank Rich, for example, asked about the lack of commentary, replied: "We are independent operators who work outside the newsroom." Thomas Friedman said: "We are truly home alone. We can write whatever we want."

John Tierney, however, explained, "I didn't feel a need to weigh in," indicating that his "Nadagate" column represented all he had to say on the issue. "A column really works best when you really have something to say about something. I haven't had a great original thought on this."

Tierney also said that he did not have any more information on the case than any other Times reader, so he was reluctant to give an opinion. When asked if he could have at least acknowledged the issue in a column and written about how it is affecting the media or Washington, he dismissed such an approach. "An awful lot of my columns are not about Washington," said Tierney, who is based in the nation's capital. "I don't have inside knowledge of this case and when I write a column, I try to say something that is original."

Like each columnist who spoke with E&P, Tierney stressed that he had not been urged by anyone at the paper to avoid the subject. "There is absolutely no pressure on me," he said.

Other columnists who spoke with E&P offered similar responses when asked why they had taken a pass on writing about Miller.

"I tend to write about few domestic issues, and it is not really interesting from my point of view," Friedman said. "If I had something to say about it, I'd write about it." Friedman, who recently returned from Iraq, added that he was waiting to see the long-anticipated report on the Miller case, which is rumored to be coming this weekend in the Times. "I am waiting to hear the whole story."

But when asked why he could not have weighed in on the matter during the past few months as Miller waited in jail and the topic received major scrutiny in several news outlets -- including the Times own supportive editorial page -- Friedman repeated that he "just had nothing important to say."

Rich, whose column appears on Sundays, wrote a piece for the July 10 paper that lamented Miller's jailing, but also took her to task for misleading readers with her past coverage of WMDs in Iraq. Since then, Rich has not offered any new opinion on the matter, despite Miller's release and re-testifying this past week.

"Essentially, I want to know the facts," he said, noting that he was working on an Iraq-related column for this Sunday, but offered no more details on it. "The facts I've known, I've written about. I don't know any more about what happened with Judy Miller's case that what everyone else has read about it."

Nicholas Kristof, a four-year veteran of the Times' Op-Ed page, said he had made plans to visit Miller in jail on a day that turned out to be four days after her release. He said he planned to speak with her and then write something about it for the following Sunday. But when she was released, it changed his plans.

"It's an issue that I have been interested in writing about," Kristof said. "But in the past, it was that a reporter should not be in jail in these circumstances. But now it is what is going to happen next." Since he did not know what the next step will be, or what the paper plans to report, Kristof said he had no basis for a column now.

"I didn't just want to sit and suck my thumb and write," he explained. "Columns should be about presenting new information." He adds that writing anything now would be limited without knowing more about the case. "You don't want to write about something without hearing the Judy side of the story or management's side of the story," he said, adding that he had not sought to contact Miller since her release.

Columnists Maureen Dowd, David Brooks, Paul Krugman, and Bob Herbert did not return calls seeking comment.

Time will tell whether Tierney's commentary in his "Nadagate" column will hold up. He wrote: "...it looks as if this scandal is about a spy who was not endangered, a whistle-blower who did not blow the whistle and was not smeared, and a White House official who has not been fired for a felony that he did not commit. And so far the only victim is a reporter who did not write a story about it."



Joe Strupp (mailto:jstrupp@editorandpublisher.com) is a senior editor at E&P.

Bull Shit, Tierney. You need to see an Eye doctor, as there is something really wrong with your vision.

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