In 2001, Stephen Engelberg was the investigations editor for the New York Times. One of his reporters was a Times veteran named Judith Miller.
“Maybe a couple of weeks after July 4, 2001, Judy came to my desk,” Engelberg said. “She said, ‘I’ve got an amazing story. We’ve got to go to go fast. This is really astounding stuff.’”
What she had did sound amazing: an intercept of a conversation between two members of al-Qaida.
“The first guy says something along the lines of, it’s really a shame the United States did not retaliate for the attack on the USS Cole, which was an American ship that had been attacked by a sort of suicide-bombing dinghy,” Engelberg said. “And then the second guy says, well, don’t worry, we’re planning something so big they’re going to have to retaliate.”
Miller had been covering Islamic extremism for years, and it seemed like she might have a huge scoop—plans by known terrorists to launch a major attack against the United States. Engelberg was interested. But first, he needed to know where the story came from.
“Who are these two guys?” Engelberg asked. “Where are they? Are they high level? Low level? Or are they just two guys talking?”
Miller didn’t have those answers but said she’d try to find out. She came back and told Engelberg that she couldn’t get any more detail. The story never ran. Two months later, al-Qaida hijacked four planes and killed 3,000 people.
“After 9/11, we both at some point caught our breath and talked about this and sort of thought, wow, what if we had done the story?” Engelberg said. “You know, would it have changed history? Were they really onto this thing or was it just a coincidence?”
There are two ways to think about the decision to spike that story.
The first: This is exactly how journalism is supposed to work. An aggressive reporter got a tantalizing bit of information. A careful editor pushed back to make sure it was properly sourced. It turned out the story just wasn’t there. So the New York Times didn’t publish it. The paper’s journalistic standards were upheld.
The second way to think about it: the New York Times could have had one of the biggest scoops in history—if they’d pushed harder to get it. Or, maybe, if they’d gone to press with something that wasn’t a hundred percent buttoned up. You can even imagine a scenario where the paper prints the story and helps prevent the 9/11 attacks.
Journalists have to balance two competing ideas: Get the biggest story you can, before the competition does. But also, make sure that what you’re publishing is true.
Sometimes they end up being cautious, and big news never makes it into the paper. Sometimes they’re aggressive—and that can cause its own set of problems.
In the run-up to the Iraq War, almost no one was more aggressive than Judith Miller. If you read the New York Times in 2002 and 2003, you probably believed the Iraqis had weapons of mass destruction. In the year before the invasion of Iraq, the media mostly backed the administration’s narrative about WMD, even when the evidence was thin.
“Why did I believe the people I believed?” Miller said. “Why did I believe the people who talked to me and not the people who wouldn’t? Because these people, by and large—not all of them, but most of them—had been the very same people who were warning us about al-Qaida and 9/11. I had every reason to believe them because they had been right before.
“I got it wrong. I got it wrong because I believed people who also believed themselves.”
How did the press get the question of weapons of mass destruction so wrong? Why did so many reporters end up looking so credulous? And why was Judith Miller the one who took the fall?