Judith Miller owes everybody who’s ever slipped a piece of paper under a reporter’s door, left an envelope under a car windshield wiper, or called up a reporter on an answering machine in the middle of the night with some information that reporter couldn’t get any other way, the deepest and most abject of apologies.

I’ve been defending Judith Miller since she went to jail, from bloggers, from people who insist there’s no reason for anonymous sources ever to be used, from people who called her a whore and worse for being friendly with administration officials. I’ve been defending her because I had no idea who she was protecting, or why. There were plenty of theories, but no proof of anything, no definitive statement.

Reading through the Times’ pathetic attempt at one, however, it becomes very clear that the only person Judith Miller was protecting was herself.

Neither The Times nor its cause has emerged unbruised. Three courts, including the Supreme Court, declined to back Ms. Miller. Critics said The Times was protecting not a whistle-blower but an administration campaign intended to squelch dissent. The Times’s coverage of itself was under assault: While the editorial page had crusaded on Ms. Miller’s behalf, the news department had more than once been scooped on the paper’s own story, even including the news of Ms. Miller’s release from jail.

Critics said? CRITICS SAID? How else, pray tell, could you possibly construe it, other than that she granted what should be a protection sparingly given to those in real danger who speak up anyway, granted that to a bunch of bullies and thugs who wanted to beat up on their rival’s wife in public.

And that’s what enrages me. She agreed to protect a criminal engaged in an ongoing smear campaign. Her editors, who appeared to need little or no reassurance about the legitimacy of her source’s concerns before agreeing to defend her decision, protected the criminals as well. All to trash the reputation of somebody the Bush administration didn’t like, who was forcing them to face truths they didn’t want to accept about their pretty new war.

This case has harmed every reporter who’s ever taken info he shouldn’t have from a person who shouldn’t be giving it, because it’s made what can be a critically important First Admendment principle into a cocktail party joke, and what annoys me most about the Times’ account is that neither Miller nor Keller nor Sulzberger seem to GET that. Just as during the Jayson Blair fiasco no one at the Times seemed to understand that it was about more than the poor put-upon Times.

When you make yourself an example, when the most powerful newspaper in the country makes you and itself an example, then it’s about more than just you. It’s about everybody out there trying to do a job. Miller will go off and write her book now, and she won’t know about the people covering city government who won’t be able to convince the low-level guy in the water department to give them a copy of the budget the mayor’s trying to keep secret. She won’t hear about the cop who might have gone to a TV station with some video the brass doesn’t want them to see. She won’t know about all the people trying to get the word out about wrongs being done, who are now afraid to trust reporters, and reporters who are now afraid of what’s going to happen to them if they promise not to tell, and that promise is turned around on them.

A couple of years ago, after the Jack Kelley story broke and in the wake of the endless, endless woe-is-me stories about how Jayson Blair got away with what he got away with, I wrote that a suitable punishment for people like Blair and Kelley would be a symbolic “flogging around the fleet.” They should have to visit every newsroom, from the Beaver County Tidbit to their own rarefied chambers, and apologize to the reporters whose jobs they just made harder, who didn’t have the fame or backing they did, who got paid peanuts and couldn’t dream of having the kinds of chances Blair and Kelley squandered.

I’d like Judy Miller and Bill Keller to do that as well. They’ve made it harder for honest reporters, investigative journalists, anyone who labors under the sharp and sincere and heartbreakingly idealistic hope that if one uncovers a problem and points it out with enough force, change will result.

Because that’s what drives many of the people in the same trade as the sainted Ms. Miller. That’s what drives the sources they depend on, and that’s what she’s making a joke out of. She protected liars and swindlers, and the difference does matter, because it makes it harder for the innocent to get the protection they deserve, when it’s so cheaply granted to people like Libby and Rove. I wish people at her level understood that the more they clown in public like this, the thinner is the benefit of the doubt people are willing to give to anybody who picks up a pen.

If she, if Keller, if anybody at the Times got that, they might take this situation a little more seriously, and fire enough people to make the point crystal clear.