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Judith Miller and The Iraq War: The Value of Reliable Sources

Judith Miller and The Iraq War: The Value of Reliable Sources

Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2002, New York Times reporter Judith Miller provided extensive coverage of the Iraq War, including reports having to do with weapons of mass destruction and biological warfare.

In Sept. 2002, Miller reported an interception of aluminum tubes used by Iraqis to supposedly “intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium.” Throughout this report, Miller cites unnamed officials and intelligence officers from the Pentagon and from the Bush administration. 

A year later on April 21, 2003, Miller published another article claiming that an Iraqi scientist had told the Americans that “Iraq destroyed chemical weapons and biological warfare equipment only days before the war began.” Throughout most of the article there are no named sources–most claims were from sources with ambiguous titles like “the scientist” and “the Americans.” This article received backlash from Millers’ colleagues at the Times, and was particularly suspicious as it had been sent to the military for approval and according to an article by The Observer, “The military officials had even dictated a change to the copy, that the Times agreed to make.” 

Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz reported on an internal email between Judith Miller and the New York Times’ Baghdad bureau chief John Burns. In this email, Miller disclosed that her source regarding the weapons of mass destruction was Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqui political and founding member of the Iraqui National Congress. A year later, the U.S. government cut ties with Chalabi, whom a New York Times editorial stated was too heavily relied on for information during their coverage of the Iraq war. 

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In 2005, amidst facing trial involving refusal to divulge a source, Miller discussed her severance package with the New York Times and left the publication after facing backlash over

her coverage of the Iraq War and weapons of mass destruction, as well as her lawsuit surrounding the “Plamegate” scandal—which involved the public identification of a CIA agent. Judith Miller and her inability to provide named, reliable sources continues to prove the importance of verifiable sources and transparency from journalists. Lack of transparency is what hinders public trust in journalism and reporting. In the book “New Ethics of Journalism,” author Roy Peter Clark states in regard to trust that “at best, we get a grudging suspension of disbelief, which can evolve into something stronger only if we journalists are willing to disclose to audiences—with more humility than we have done in the past—what we know, how we came to know it, what we don’t know, what we are still trying to learn and what we may never know” (McBride, 2014, pg. 47). The only way that journalists can solidify the trust of the public is by being as transparent as possible with their information. 
According to a Gallup poll conducted in September of 2003, only 54% of Americans trusted the media a “great deal” or “fair amount,” a large drop from a similar poll that showed 72% of Americans trusted the media in 1976. Big mistakes made by journalists at prominent publications involving unverified sources or plagiarism can lead to consequences for the industry as a whole. Especially when reporting on sensitive information like the Iraq War, it is important for journalists to dedicate themselves to verifying real, credible sources and to avoid any unethical practices. Equally, it is important that journalists who do engage in unethical practices to be held accountable for their actions, whether that be through leaving their position at their publication or facing legal action.

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