October 26, 2005

NPR's Folkenflik Weighs In on Miller Controversy

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National Public Radio media correspondent and former Sun editor in chief David Folkenflik ’91 spoke about the importance of trust in journalism in a lecture in Alice Cook House last night.

Specifically, he discussed The New York Times’ role in the Plame Affair currently engulfing Washington. Although The Times at first supported reporter Judith Miller’s decision to resist a subpoena in the Plame investigation on First Amendment grounds, it later became clear that Miller had committed journalistic improprieties surrounding the case and that The Times could have done more to investigate Miller’s side of the story and ultimately to rein her in, Folkenflik said.

Folkenflik underscored the idea that journalism is fundamentally about trust.

“You get up in the morning and you get your New York Times or your Ithaca Journal, or, if you’re lucky, The Cornell Daily Sun – and you’ve done this in part because you trust [the papers] to be impartial, honest, arbiters of information,” Folkenflik said.

As a journalist, Folkenflik said, “All you really have is people believing in you, because otherwise, they just might as well go to the movies.”

Folkenflik was critical, among other things, of the way Miller used anonymous sources. She had quoted I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the vice president’s chief of staff, anonymously, and, instead of referring to him as a “senior administration official,” called him a “former Hill staffer,” which he was.

But, Folkenflik said, “With hidden sources, you have to have a sense of where it is coming from.”

“It’s kind of like doing a story on me, and instead of saying I’m a journalist, calling me a former Little League catcher,” Folkenflik said.

Folkenflik talked about his time working as a reporter at The Baltimore Sun. An editor there, he said, told him, “I’m not paying you to be a stenographer. I’m paying you to know more about what you’re covering than anyone else,” and to report it faithfully to the public.

“[Miller’s] on book leave,” Folkenflik said, “and it’s my guess that the book leave will last somewhere around 130 years.”

When Miller was subpoenaed as part of the Plame Affair investigation, she refused to testify, on the grounds that she would have been breaking a confidentiality agreement by divulging her sources. The New York Times stood behind her very forcefully, even through an 85-day jail term for contempt of court. Miller’s story was framed by The New York Times as a First Amendment issue.

However, it has recently been suggested that Miller may have misled readers, editors and other Times staff, and also may have had a personal, rather than principled, stake in not testifying.

The lecture, officially named “Judith Miller, Valerie Plame, Lewis Libby and the Media,” centered around an investigation currently being conducted by special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald. The investigation began in order to ascertain whether a crime had been committed when the identity of ambassador Joseph Wilson’s wife was disseminated in the press. Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, had been an undercover agent for the Central Intelligence Agency.

Folkenflik called the leak a “political hatchet job” to punish Wilson, the ambassador, for having been critical of the Bush administration’s reasons for having gone to war, namely, the idea that Saddam Hussein possessed or was producing weapons of mass destruction.

Nobody has been indicted in the investigation as of press time.

As part of the investigation, Fitzgerald subpoenaed many reporters in order to try to discover, in their sources, the identity of whoever leaked Plame’s identity to the press. One of those reporters was Miller. Miller has recently been criticized for misleading her editors in the lead-up to her subpoena, as well as having had an interest in the administration’s attack on Wilson not being revealed. Before the start of the Iraq war, Miller was less skeptical than other journalists of the Bush administration’s claims that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.

“The New York Times failed to keep faith with reporters, readers and [Miller],” Folkenflik said, in that they did not question her when she first decided to resist the subpoena.

Folkenflik also spoke on the media’s role during and following Hurricane Katrina and reminisced about his days as an undergraduate at Cornell.

Folkenflik, who covers the media for NPR shows such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Day to Day, has been a house guest at Cook House since Sunday. According to Prof. Ross Brann, dean of Cook House, Folkenflik will stay through this evening unless there is an indictment in the Plame investigation, in which case he would have to return to Washington.

Folkenflik’s stay in Cook House was part of a new yearly series of visits to the West Campus house system by prominent speakers in public affairs. The series is endowed by Irik Sevin ’69. Vice Provost Isaac Kramnick introduced Folkenflik.

“It is always a pleasure to see former students do not only well but good in the world,” he said.

Folkenflik worked on The Sun with ESPN correspondent Jeremy Schaap ’91. Schaap, who had served as sports editor the year before, was senior editor while Folkenflik was editor-in-chief.

He went to NPR in Nov. 2004, having previously served for more than a decade at The Baltimore Sun, and having worked at the Durham (N.C.) Herald-Sun prior to that.

Folkenflik mixed with students and faculty at a reception following the event.

Archived article by avid Wittenberg
Sun Staff Writer