Jul 1 2011

The End of the Bill Keller Era

NYT chief did not challenge state power—he served it

Photo Credit: New York Times

Photo Credit: New York Times

When Bill Keller announced that he would soon be stepping down as the New York Times’ top editor, he was hailed as the man “who rebuilt the confidence of the New York Times newsroom after the Jayson Blair scandal” (Forbes, 6/2/11). Rem Rieder of American Journalism Review (3-4/11) wrote that Keller “righted the ship” and “deserves major credit for steering our most important news organization in an immensely challenging time, for the most part avoiding the icebergs.” Hendrik Hertzberg (New Yorker, 6/3/11) commended his tenure: “The quality and quantity of Times journalism remain unsurpassed on Planet Earth.”

Despite all the praise, Keller’s record of major editorial decisions during his eight-year reign—especially on matters of national security, foreign policy and domestic surveillance—is littered with journalistic disappointments that warrant criticism rather than praise.

Underlying many of these critical decisions is a remarkable deference to state power, whether under a Republican or Democratic administration: his suppression of information about the National Security Agency’s illegal wiretapping program, his refusal to use the word “torture” when the U.S. engaged in it, and his closeness to the government regarding the WikiLeaks anti-secrecy project.

In a speech given at FAIR’s 25th anniversary ceremony (4/28/11), Glenn Greenwald highlighted Keller’s relationship with the government when he described the editor’s handling of the release of documents from WikiLeaks:

What [Keller] is most proud of is that…the New York Times, before it publishes any of these [controversial or classified] documents, goes to the government and says, “These are the things that we wish to publish,” and then listens to the government say, “Don’t publish this and don’t publish that,” and in general the New York Times complies…. He’s so proud of the fact that he’s gotten government approval for what it is that he’s doing; it’s the proof that he’s doing the right thing.

Appeasing the powerful

Keller’s first major misstep was his handling of George W. Bush’s illegal wiretapping program. The Times had knowledge prior to the 2004 elections that the U.S. government was secretly monitoring communications between Americans without a warrant; the program was an unambiguous violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978, which makes each instance of such monitoring a felony.

But the paper, under the urging of the Bush administration, withheld this vital information until December 2005, more than a year after the 2004 election, denying Americans the chance to factor this abuse of power into their vote (FAIR Action Alert, 1/11/06). (Bush received 50.7 percent of the popular vote; a shift of 60,000 votes in Ohio would have cost him the election.) The Times’ article on the program admitted and explained the paper’s decision to sit on the story, nine paragraphs into its blockbuster front-page article (12/16/05):

The White House asked the New York Times not to publish this article, arguing that it could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be terrorists that they might be under scrutiny. After meeting with senior administration officials to hear their concerns, the newspaper delayed publication for a year to conduct additional reporting. Some information that administration officials argued could be useful to terrorists has been omitted.

Keller expressed no regret about his decision to enable a massive crime to continue for more than a year without public scrutiny. In fact, his statements revealed a jarring lack of skepticism toward the government: “Officials also 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,” he said in a statement (CNN, 12/16/05). “As we have done before in rare instances when faced with a convincing national security argument, we agreed not to publish at that time.”

This deferential approach was also evident when WikiLeaks released mountains of State Department cables, which the Times acquired. Keller told the PBS NewsHour (1/28/11) that his paper approached the government with all the documents, which then “decided that they could actually do some good by talking to us about specific things that they wished we wouldn’t publish.”

Under this approach, the Times’ coverage of the WikiLeaks cables praised the “skillful” and “appropriate” diplomacy and “the absence of any real skullduggery” (11/30/10) they read into the cables—while ignoring many stories that ought to prick up any journalist’s ear, like the U.S. attempts to obstruct Spanish government investigations into the killing of a Spanish journalist in Iraq by U.S. forces (Harpers.org, 12/1/10), to cite just one example.

Using the T-word

Keller also allowed the Bush administration to alter his newspaper’s terminology. Prior to the Bush/Cheney “War on Terror,” the Times uncontroversially referred to waterboarding—the act of simulating drowning to interrogate a detainee—as torture. When it became evident in 2005 that the United States government was using the method in its interrogations, the word torture was suddenly erased from the paper’s vocabulary (Extra!, 5-6/08).

As a 2010 report (4/10) by the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government noted:

From the early 1930s until the modern story broke in 2004, the newspapers that covered waterboarding almost uniformly called the practice torture or implied it was torture: The New York Times characterized it thus in 81.5 percent (44 of 54) of articles on the subject and the Los Angeles Times did so in 96.3 percent of articles (26 of 27). By contrast, from 2002-08, the studied newspapers almost never referred to waterboarding as torture. The New York Times called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in just 2 of 143 articles (1.4 percent).

Keller disputed the conclusions of the study. “I think this Kennedy School study—by focusing on whether we have embraced the politically correct term of art in our news stories—is somewhat misleading and tendentious,” he said (NYTimes.com, 7/2/10). “When using a word amounts to taking sides in a political dispute, our general practice is to supply the readers with the information to decide for themselves.” Keller also added as a justification that “senior officials of the Bush administration” insisted their actions did not constitute torture.

Such arguments fail to convince, or to explain why, as a reporter for the Times, Keller himself routinely used the word torture to describe waterboarding (NYT Picker, 7/3/10).

Greenwald (Salon, 7/3/10) called Keller’s response “one of the more demented and reprehensible statements I’ve seen from a high-level media executive in some time.” The Times’ public editor, Arthur S. Brisbane (5/14/11), disputed Keller’s absurd position: “The Times should use the term ‘torture’ more directly, using it on first reference when the discussion is about—and there’s no other word for it—torture,” he wrote. “More narrowly, the word is appropriate when describing techniques traditionally considered torture, waterboarding being the obvious example.”

Yet, as the Atlantic (4/26/11) observed, “eventually the debate faded and the paper continued not to use the word ‘torture’ to refer to waterboarding or other interrogation techniques used by the United States.”

Ethics and the Middle East conflict

Keller will also be remembered for the decision to allow Ethan Bronner to serve as the paper’s Jerusalem bureau chief—a central decision maker in coverage of the Israel/Palestine conflict—even after his son joined the Israeli Defense Force (Extra!, 4/10).

When Bronner’s son’s enlistment became public knowledge, readers, rightly concerned about the ability of Bronner to impartially cover a conflict his son is fighting in, expressed major concern through letters and phone calls to the Times (FAIR Action Alert, 1/27/10; Electronic Intifada, 1/25/10). Then-public editor Clark Hoyt (2/6/10) agreed with those concerns and suggested that Bronner be reassigned. “Even the most sympathetic reader could reasonably wonder how that would affect the father, especially if shooting broke out,” Hoyt wrote. “I would find a plum assignment for him somewhere else, at least for the duration of his son’s service in the IDF.”

Keller, however, remained unperturbed by this conflict of interest, and even claimed that Bronner’s family connections could be an asset in his reporting. “My point is not that Ethan’s family connections to Israel are irrelevant. They are significant, and both he and his editors should be alert for the possibility that they would compromise his work,” Keller wrote (NYTimes.com, 2/6/10). “How those connections affect his innermost feelings about the country and its conflicts, I don’t know. I suspect they supply a measure of sophistication about Israel and its adversaries that someone with no connections would lack.”

As a FAIR Action Alert pointed out (2/12/10), Keller “advances no argument for maintaining Bronner in his position other than his subjective impression—shared by those who agree with him—that his reporter is doing an impeccable job. Since others have a different impression, their judgment must be denigrated.” (Keller called critics of Bronner’s assignment “savage partisans.”) And Bronner’s job performance, even before his son joined the IDF, had indeed been called into question (FAIR Blog, 12/09/10).

But it is hard to take Keller seriously when he claims the Times feels having a close family member fighting in a war helps a reporter’s impartiality. Could one even imagine a Times reporter with close family ties to Hamas or Hezbollah being assigned to the Middle East beat?

While Keller has been given much praise in media circles since his departure was announced, his tenure at the Times should not be celebrated. The reality is that Keller has contributed to the further degradation of trust in the U.S. corporate media, which continues to demonstrate a subservience to power and deeply held institutional biases.

Michael Corcoran (MichaelCorcoran.blogspot.com) is a freelance journalist based in Boston. He writes frequently for Extra!, as well as for such outlets as the Nation and the Boston Globe.