John Miller’s office at CBS News is filled with keepsakes from his two lives as top cop and leading reporter: badges from his tours with the New York and Los Angeles police departments; a photograph from his 1998 interview with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan; his FBI badge and ID; even an LAPD Beach Patrol cap. (“The one job I never got,” Miller jokes.) “When I was covering the cops, I wasn’t one of those guys who showed up to work everyday saying ‘I’ve gotta find the scandal in the police department,'” says Miller. “And when I was with the police department, I didn’t hate the press for doing its job, either. Which I think has made it easier to toggle back and forth.”
On 9/11, he manned the ABC News desk with Peter Jennings, covering the attack as his former NYPD colleagues responded to the scene of a crime at which many of them would die. During the Sandy Hook school massacre in December, while other reporters speculated, Miller had the facts: He called the right number of casualties, reported the type of weapon the shooter had used (a Bushmaster assault rifle), and confirmed the discovery of the killer’s murdered mother’s body. “Things were unfolding in real time, and we knew some of the information would change,” Miller says. “But we knew this was gonna be very, very, very bad.”
Miller, 54, is a big-boned man with large, pink hands. He keeps his silver hair cropped like police do and favors the pinstriped suits, French-cuff dress shirts, and silk pocket squares of someone who earns a living in front of a camera. “To understand John Miller, you have to understand three things,” says Charlie Rose, Miller’s friend and colleague on the ‘CBS This Morning.’ “He is very bright, and he has great reportorial instincts. He is also eminently likeable. A man of good humor. You enjoy his company. You want to talk to John Miller.”
Miller’s father, also John, was an old-school reporter for the New York Enquirer, and he ran the family house in Montclair, New Jersey, like a press mill. “My dad wrote seven columns under six different names,” Miller says. “Antonio from Rome. Pierre from Paris. Nigel from London.” Miller remembers watching his father at his cigarette-shrouded desk as he moved from topic to topic: Hollywood gossip, foreign correspondent, Broadway critic, crime investigator, political pundit. (His father covered crime with particular gusto, becoming close friends with Luciano crime family boss, Frank Costello – Costello’s wife was Miller’s godmother.) Some nights, he would drag the seven-year-old John with him into Manhattan, to places like the Copacabana or El Morocco to catch Frank Sinatra or Sammy Davis Jr. perform, and where he would also work the hatcheck girls for gossip. “It was like that tracking shot in ‘Goodfellas,'” says Miller. “Through the kitchen, up the backstairs, and into the dressing room to see Bobby Darin, after he just finished singing ‘Mack the Knife.'”
At 14, Miller landed a $2-an-hour night job at WNEW, one of the city’s independent TV stations. He monitored the police radio, harassed the precincts for story leads, fetched film from the lab. Eventually he moved up to covering murders, fires, building collapses – anything and everything. In 1973, he worked the murder of Roseann Quinn, a Bronx schoolteacher who had been living a secret life picking up men in singles bars. (Her life, and death, became the inspiration for the 1975 novel, ‘Looking for Mr. Goodbar.’) Miller missed so many classes, he graduated from high school a year late – with stories his classmates could scarcely believe. “I was getting to see what most kids weren’t even allowed to watch on TV,” he says. (In a 2002 interview in ‘People,’ Miller, asked about his education, recalled, “Friends would say, ‘We got high behind the garage last night, what did you do?’ I’d say, ‘I went to a triple homicide in the Bronx.'”)
In 1986, Miller scored his first big “get,” landing an on-camera exchange with Mafia boss John Gotti as he exited a Manhattan courthouse. He scooped the city’s press corps again in 1992, when he revealed, with leaked information from a government source, that Gotti had given a juror in the trial a $60,000 bribe. (The “Teflon Don” was acquitted.) The FBI investigated Miller’s information – they later convicted Gotti of obstruction of justice – and an official report of the incident detailed Miller’s deep connections to New York law enforcement.
Two years later, in 1994, incoming New York Police Department commissioner, William Bratton, asked Miller to join him as spokesman. Bratton admits that not everyone was impressed by the choice. “People were aghast that this TV reporter who wears $2,000 Brioni suits and smokes Cuban cigars was now gonna be on the other side telling the story instead of reporting it,” he says. It turned out, though, that Miller’s experience with cops proved invaluable. He’d gotten loaded with them in their bars, toasted them at their retirement parties, paid his respects at their kids’ christenings. “John knew everybody’s public story, and he knew everybody’s private story,” says Bratton. “He’s got a rat-trap memory. He’s never met someone he didn’t put in his Rolodex.”
Some of Miller’s reporting colleagues resented him for “going over to the dark side.” But Miller knew it was an incredible opportunity, “like having my nose pressed against the glass for 20 years and finally getting inside.” And in some ways, the work wasn’t so different. He got comments from the same injured cops being wheeled into ambulances, pieced together what happened at the same drug busts gone bad – only instead of publishing what he learned, he released a statement to the press. “It’s information gathering,” Miller says. “Learning the essential details, separating the wheat from the chaff, and putting it into context.” He stayed for a little more than a year, until the journalism bug bit him again.
Miller parlayed his high-profile police work into a network job at ABC News. His major break as a national reporter came in 1998, when a source from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing investigation suggested that Miller pursue an interview in Afghanistan with Osama bin Laden. That hour-long interview, conducted only months before al Qaeda’s attacks on U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, was one of the earliest glimpses Americans got of the terrorist mastermind.
Miller continued his run at ABC News, and in 2002, joined Barbara Walters as co-anchor on ’20/20′. But in 2003, after Bratton took charge of the scandal-scarred LAPD, Miller gave it all up and headed West, helping establish the department’s counter-terrorism and criminal-intelligence bureau. “When I told Barbara I was leaving to be a cop in L.A., she said, ‘Are you crazy?'” says Miller. But he felt he could make a bigger difference fighting terrorism than covering it.
Unlike in New York, Miller’s job was operational instead of acting as spokesman, and he realized that real cop work required a real cop. So he enrolled at the city’s police academy, and seven months later (he went part time), Bratton swore him in as member of the force. “It was the proudest day of his life,” says Bratton.
In 2005, Miller was ready for a new challenge, so he moved on again, first to the FBI as a public-affairs officer, and then to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the agency that oversees the FBI and CIA. Ultimately, though, the glacial pace of Washington’s bureaucracy frustrated him. “He was hoping to have more of an impact,” says Bratton. “He wasn’t being fully utilized.” Plus, after eight years of public service, Miller was ready to return to the news. In 2011, CBS hired him as a senior correspondent. “I don’t know what they’re paying him,” says Bratton, “but it’s not enough, since they’re getting four different reporters in one.”
“Every time something comes up in the newsroom,” says CBS News president David Rhodes, “John will say, ‘I know the guy, let me tell you the deal on him.'” Last July, after the mass killing in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, Miller nabbed an exclusive interview with the city’s police chief. “He worked for the NYPD at the same time as John,” says Rhodes.
Despite his success at CBS, Miller admits that he still feels tempted to jump to the other side of the yellow tape again. “Whenever something big happens, you watch it,” he says, his voice trailing off a little bit wistfully. “But then you remember the last time you were there, how you saw the reporters and said, ‘Look at those guys out there. They probably know more than we do.'”