Blogs > Liberty and Power > The Judith Miller Affair

Oct 26, 2005 2:23 am


The Judith Miller Affair



The Judith Miller affair illustrates how dangerously powerful government can be even in democratic systems.

It appears that Judith Miller was a conduit, perhaps wittingly although this is not yet clear, for information the U.S. government was interested in disseminating in the build up to the occupation of Iraq regarding weapons of mass destruction. Her bosses at the New York Times seem to think she developed an unhealthy relationship with Mr. Lewis Libby, the Vice President´s deputy, who might have made of her a tool of the government´s case against its critics in the media. Although this has not been proven yet, many people suspect Mr. Libby told Mrs. Miller the identity of intelligence officer Valerie Plame in order to discredit her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson.

Regardless of one´s take on the war, one has to see a huge irony in all of this. The U.S. government was able to use one of its strong critics, in this case the New York Times, to make the case for the war. But it would be wrong to conclude the reason this happened was Judith Miller´s manipulation of her own newspaper. This may indeed be in part what happened, but the reason it was possible in the first place is a much more important issue. Because of the insecurity felt by Americans after 9/11, public opinion in the U.S. became overwhelmingly predisposed to support anything the government told the nation. In that context-a context it is easy to forget today- no major organization, including as influential a media outlet as the New York Times, felt it could afford to go against the current. In other circumstances, media organizations critical of the government would have been competing for news that would help expose the weakness of the WMD argument for the war. But in the days before the occupation of Iraq, no big media outlet dared make a serious, sustained effort to discredit the government´s case lest it opened itself to the accusation of being less than patriotic. So, how did media organizations compete against each other? They tried to obtain exclusive information from the government. Anyone who, like Judith Miller, had high-level sources in the Administration and was able to obtain scoops regarding the case for war became very valuable. For a while, the mainstream press-including the Administration´s critics-was much more interested in feeding on government information than in holding the government in check.

Whether one supports the war in Iraq or not, surely this constitutes a perversion of the relationship between government and the media. There is something fundamentally wrong when an influential media institution that distrusts a government feels compelled to direct its energy towards becoming a confidant of that very same government because the psychological environment in which it is operating forces it to go against its own convictions. Judith Miller´s stories regarding WMD would have had a much harder time obtaining her editor´s and her paper´s approval in a context in which the sanitary barriers between official truth and real truth had not been blown away by public opinion-and by the failure of civic and political leaders to remind citizens that any government, however popular it is, needs to be checked.

David Hume certainly knew what he was talking about three centuries ago when he wrote, “Though men be much governed by interest, yet even interest itself, and all human affairs, are entirely governed by opinion.” Sometimes, opinion becomes the death knell of government, and sometimes it serves its purposes. But the main point is this: when a people, because of fear and insecurity, gives any government unconditional trust and ceases to place between it and the authorities the kind of skeptical distance without which no government can truly be limited, that society, including its media outlets, becomes hostage to political power and ceases, at least for a while, to be truly free. And when that happens, who is really to blame? Is it the Judith Millers of this world, or is it the overwhelming current of public opinion and those politicians, news organizations, and civic institutions that followed suit and made the likes of Judith Miller especially valuable? ----- End forwarded message ----- --




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