November 09, 2005

Disentangling the entanglements

The announced "retirement" of Judith Miller from the New York Times helps to resolve a couple of loose ends from my Oct. 24 post, "Semantic entanglements." Appended to the memo that executive editor Bill Keller sent to the Times staff this afternoon is the text of a letter from Keller to Miller. In it, Keller addresses two points that Miller had complained about in his earlier staff memo regarding the CIA leak case.

First, you are upset with me that I used the words "entanglement" and "engagement" in reference to your relationship with Scooter Libby. Those words were not intended to suggest an improper relationship. I was referring only to the series of interviews through which you ­ and the paper ­ became caught up in an epic legal controversy.

Second, you dispute my assertion that "Judy seems to have misled" Phil Taubman when he asked whether you were one of the reporters to whom the White House reached out with the Wilson story. I continue to be troubled by that episode. But you are right that Phil himself does not contend that you misled him; and, of course, I was not a participant in the conversation between you and Phil.

Once again it's helpful to use the lens of speech act theory. In the first case, Keller asserts that his use of entanglement and engagement was perfectly innocent, lacking the illocutionary force of an indirect speech act accusing Miller and Libby of an improper relationship. Nonetheless, Keller's use of those words had the unintended perlocutionary effect of offending Miller. In the second case, Keller modifies his claim that Miller's statements to Washington bureau chief Philip Taubman constituted an apparent illocutionary act of misleading, by acknowledging that there was no perlocutionary effect of Taubman feeling misled.

There's enough fodder for a whole thesis on journalistic pragmatics lurking in those memos.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at November 9, 2005 04:49 PM