Judith Miller is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist and former reporter at The New York Times. Currently, she is an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a commentator for Fox News. She specializes in speaking on American foreign policy, terrorism and other national security issues. Bold asked her about Syria, “fake news,” her time in jail and being bold.
BOLD: Especially now that the United States has made a move against Syria with a missile strike, how should we respond to Syrian refugees?
JUDITH MILLER: Ideally, refugees should be sheltered and protected as close to their native lands as possible. But given the chaos in the Middle East, that is not possible. We are a nation of immigrants, which from time to time forgets its original inspiration. Since I am the daughter of immigrants who fled war, repression and famine — Russia and Ireland — I am especially ardent about the need to protect the world’s most vulnerable people. Of course America can’t shelter everyone. But I believe that we have a moral obligation to offer safety and hope to as many victims of war and terror as we can handle. As someone who writes about terrorism and how best to counter it, I think data shows that refugees are not likely to conduct or foment terror here. And asylum seekers, in particular, are among the most heavily vetted of refugees. It is their children who have a greater risk of being radicalized.
B: Should President Trump have waited on congressional approval before launching the airstrike on Syria?
JM: No. I think that President Trump’s limited, proportional missile strike against the Syrian air base from President Assad’s sarin gas was launched — which killed over 85 civilians — was long overdue. It was not aimed at toppling Assad or ousting his minority Alawite regime, as was President Obama’s ill-conceived, poorly executed attack on Libya (the only nation to have voluntarily abandoned weapon of mass destruction as a result of the 2003 Iraq war). It was a symbolic, but important reminder that under President Trump, the international norm against the use of chemical weapons will be respected. (Paradoxically, it was President Obama’s largely successful effort to remove 1,300 metric tons of chemical weapons from Syria and made his successor’s military strike possible. Whatever Assad has hidden away is a sliver of what he once had.) Yes, he probably stored away some chemical weapons for a proverbial rainy day, but President Trump’s symbolic strike puts Assad (and his Russian protector) on notice — stop using chemical weapons or far more serious military action will follow. Assad signed the Chemical Weapons Convention barring the production and use of such agents. It’s in America’s interest that such weapon of mass destruction treaties be respected.
B: President Trump appears to have upended his own foreign policy on the campaign trail with the Syria airstrike. How do you think his foreign policy will evolve moving forward?
JM: In the past 48 hours, President Trump has upended at least four of Candidate Trump’s foreign policies — his stance towards Russia, China, Syria and Iraq. Thank goodness. He’s moved towards the mainstream, the consensus view held by many centrist Republicans and Democrats. And not a moment too soon. The question now is whether his most recent flip flops are the result of an evolution in his thinking or simply more erratic behavior. Time will tell. Whatever the case, it hasn’t been, and won’t be boring for journalists.
B: Do you think his future decisions to act on instinct will prove dangerous for the U.S., or that he will seek congressional approval in the future?
JM: Acting on impulse is almost always dangerous, particularly in a country as powerful as the U.S. He needs to consult widely. And as he should have seen from Rand Paul’s conversion on health care, inviting legislators to Mar-a-Lago for 18 holes of golf is usually more persuasive than attacking them on Twitter.
B: In this new era of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” is your priority as a Fox News reporter to take a side or try to remain as impartial as possible, and how do you do that?
JM: I’m not a reporter for Fox News. I’m a commentator. I’m expected to have opinions, and I do. But I’m not partisan…I criticize policies with which I disagree, irrespective of the political party or individual espousing them. I’m ruggedly independent. So Fox rarely knows where I will come out on a particular issue. And they are fine with that.
B: How did entering the New York Times office at a time when it was considered the “men’s lounge” strengthen, discourage and encourage you?
JM: In some ways being a woman in the newsroom at a time when there were very few of them was an advantage. Your work and by-line got noticed. Now there are roughly equal numbers of male and female reporters at my former paper, which is good. Alas, I can’t say that for senior posts. The NYT is still too often a “men’s lounge” at the top. I remain, as I was then, an ardent feminist. Too often, younger women don’t fully appreciate the sacrifices that were made to give them a more even playing field.
B: How did you work to prove yourself starting in an environment that you say yourself you weren’t quite ready for?
JM: I worked longer, harder and more passionately than many of my colleagues. I wanted to break news. And I did. Lots of it. Now I’m more focused on figuring out what that “news” really means.
B: Warranted or not, how have you learned professionally from criticism of your reporting? How does that shape your work today?
JM: Sure. We all learn from mistakes. I wrote “The Story: A Reporter’s Journey” to explore what I got right, and wrong, in my reporting. It was the hardest of my five books to write. But for me, it was the most important. We reporters will always make mistakes. What’s important is trying to minimize the number and impact of those we make, and trying to set the record straight as we get more information. That’s why God (and senior editors) invented correction boxes.
B: You spent 85 days in jail defending your right as a journalist to protect confidential sources. How did that experience challenge your views of journalism ethics and First Amendment rights?
JM: My jail time reinforced my view that independent journalism depends on reporters who are willing and able to protect our sources, even if it means jail. And it strengthened my conviction that a pillar of our democracy is a free and irreverent press. President Obama, who pledged to have the most “transparent” government, was terrible about leaks to reporters. His Justice Department initiated more leak investigations under the 1917 Espionage Act than all previous presidents combined. In my first (and I hope not my last) interview with President Trump, he, too, went ballistic over leaks of his conversations with the leaders of Mexico and Australia, vowing to find and fire the leakers. But he then paused and told me that I knew “a few things about leaks,” apparently remembering that I had gone to jail to protect my sources in 2005. He said I had been “treated very badly.” That gives me some hope that he will support our effort to promote legislation establishing a Federal shield law that would prevent reporters from being hauled before grand juries and forced to reveal our sources. I’ll ask him about his view on that if and when I see him again! I know that Vice President Mike Pence supports such a measure. He sponsored such a bill when he was serving in the House.
B: What advice would you suggest for young women who are starting their careers in journalism or other?
JM: If news organizations don’t start paying reporters a decent living wage, they should find other work! Seriously, I sometimes think that so many younger women are finding jobs in journalism because we are still grossly underpaid for our work and still paid less than men for similar work. I find that women don’t like discussing money — our salaries, bonuses, asking for a raise. I know I hated doing that. But we’ve got to demand more to get more.
B: What does being bold mean to you?
JM: Exactly that. Being bold enough to decide what you want, determined enough to keep pushing on still closed doors, and persistent enough not to take no for an answer. And sometimes it means admitting that you don’t want what you thought you wanted. It means evolving and pressing on. Especially after you’ve failed.