Do Respectable Journalists Want to Be Associated With Bill Keller?

Glenn Greenwald (cc photo: Gage Skidmore)

Glenn Greenwald (cc photo: Gage Skidmore)

Lloyd Grove of the Daily Beast (2/10/14) has a look at First Look, the new reporting venture led by Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill that launched this week with a piece about how NSA intelligence is used in US drone attacks. 

But Grove’s piece is about whether Greenwald and Scahill are the kind of journalists that respectable reporters would want to be associated with–mostly because they’re very critical of establishment journalism. Grove writes:

At last summer’s 2013 Socialism Conference in Chicago, Scahill spoke of “lapdog stenographers posing as journalists,” prompting cheers from the audience, and Greenwald inveighed against “the corruption of American journalism,”  “actors who play the role of journalists on TV,” and even former Times executive editor Bill Keller, who “defines good journalism by how much you please the people in power you’re covering.”

That would have come as news to Keller. who in a December 2005 showdown at the Oval Office defied President Bush and his demand that the Times not publish an exposé  of the NSA’s warrantless electronic eavesdropping program targeting people inside the United States. The story–by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau–earned Keller the Bush White House sobriquet of “traitor” and was a worthy predecessor to Greenwald’s NSA/Snowden scoops last June in the Guardian, for which Greenwald and Poitras are on the short list for a prestigious George Polk Award.

Grove would have a good point about Keller–if that’s what had happened. But the Times scoop he’s referring to was a story the paper famously sat on for over a year (Extra!, 2/06)–which, as many critics pointed out, included the 2004 presidential election.

Bill Keller

Bill Keller

When Keller explained why the Times held the story, he seemed to be admitting that the government’s evaluation of its own behavior was being prioritized over the public’s right to know. As he put it, the government had “assured senior editors of the Times that a variety of legal checks had been imposed that satisfied everyone involved that the program raised no legal questions.” When the Times finally published the story, the precipitating factor seems to have been the fact that Risen was going to publish it anyway in a forthcoming book–and mention that the Times had spiked the story.

That history is probably what Greenwald is referring to when he speaks of Keller. And we know that Edward Snowden was aware of this, since he’s said it was one reason he did not go to the Times with his trove of NSA documents. 

Grove wonders why First Look hasn’t attracted “mainstream journalists who would otherwise be logical recruits to work on national security issues with Greenwald & Co.,” speculating that they might be “loath to identify themselves with a worldview that leaves so little room for nuance.” That’s a bit much; one could more plausibly look at the record of the Keller-era New York Times (as Greg Mitchell did at the Nation2/9/14) and wonder why on earth any journalists would want to work with Bill Keller.



About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.