It began as another classic test of a reporter’s obligation/right to protect a confidential source. It has been propelled into a discussion of something even more basic, more forbidden, and ubiquitous: the uses of power between the sexes. And one in particular.
Until Saturday, October 22, it had been a rational dispute among the New York Times, its reporter Judith Miller, and the Justice Department. Could Miller be compelled to tell a grand jury the source of a story she never wrote, but the guts of which she allegedly knew? A story published by somebody else which led authorities to a string of reporters who also had been let in on the information, publication of which might be forbidden by federal statute. Ms. Miller spent 85 days in jail until her source unequivocally released her to tell all. But the all that trumped the original contretemps was left to Times columnist Maureen Dowd on October 22nd. Her column that day was entitled, “Woman of Mass Destruction.”
Dowd recited traits she detected in Ms. Miller, “traits she has,” Dowd wrote, “that drive many reporters at The Times crazy — her tropism toward powerful men, her…” Stop right there. That was the phrase that altered the discussion, propelled it into the larger arena. Dowd went on to recite a few other allegedly objectionable habits she detected in her colleague saying these “have never bothered me.” But the operable phrase was that “tropism toward powerful men.” In other words, Dowd was accusing Miller of using her gender in pursuit of her work.
We know the subtheme of the story; that Miller wrote frequently of Saddam Hussein’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, hewing to the White House’s oft-stated cause for war with Iraq. “If your sources are wrong,” Miller said later, “you are wrong.”
As we know now, one of her sources, the resigned vice-presidential aide Lewis “Scooter” Libby has been indicted for perjury and obstruction in the case involving the outing of Valerie Plame, wife of the diplomat who took public issue with the White House raison d-combat with Iraq. If Libby is tried, it is possible Miller will be called to testify, giving her a plausible reason nowadays for refusing to discuss her dealings with him.
But the Dowd-introduced “tropism” charge does not fold like a flower at sunset. The Times executive editor, Bill Keller, had mentioned a Miller “engagement” and “entanglement” with Libby in a critical memo in October and now that the Times and Miller have reached a divorcement, Keller had been constrained to write an apology to Miller. Those words, “entanglement” and “engagement,” Keller says, were not intended to suggest an improper relationship.
It got worse. In a November feature in the Washington Post Style Section entitled “The Reporter’s Last Take,” writer Lynne Duke reviews Miller’s history as a Washington reporter. “She was drawn to powerful people and powerful stories,” Duke writes. “Her relationships took on the aspect of legend.” (that darn ole tropism again). Duke says Miller is outraged when asked about her affairs, but Duke goes on to recount Miller’s living with the late Wisconsin Democrat Les Aspin and suggests other flowerings with others.
There is some ink-spattered justice in all of this. The Post‘s Howard Kurtz does another piece, on Maureen Dowd, plugging her book, “Are Men Necessary?” and recounting a Dowd association with actor Michael Douglas. The Kurtz piece mentions her dating reporter John Tierney, now an associate at the Times, and having been a wine-tasting invitee of former Senator Bob Packwood, indicating she declined.
So, the attention has been turned from the stale briefs of a Justice Department accusation of improper identification of secret folk, to the juicier, read “slimy,” if you wish, stuff of personal relations. And with emphasis on something known in newsrooms around the country. All reporters are not created equal. Most of the power of government and decision rests with men. But women reporters, and especially comely ones, are gifted with a special power, one that supersedes all election, and one which their male counterparts can only wonder at.
Thus in a few short weeks, the subject of Weapons of Mass Destruction and a debilitating war in the Middle East has been altered. The dialogue is different. And nobody asks whom Bob Novak dated in 1972.