Jan 17 2006

NY Times’ Nonresponses to FAIR Alert

On January 11, FAIR issued an action alert on the New York Times‘ decision to hold its explosive story on the NSA’s secret wiretapping for over a year, and executive editor Bill Keller’s refusal to answer questions about that decision. In the days that followed, FAIR activists called and emailed Keller’s office, and several received responses from Keller and his assistant, Diane Ceribelli.

None of the responses provided any new information, and some of them included patronizing or disrespectful remarks. The email responses were nearly identical; Keller and Ceribelli copied the full text of Keller’s December 16 statement regarding his decision—the statement the FAIR Action Alert characterized as “wholly unsatisfying”—prefaced by the following brief introduction:

A number of readers have written to ask about the Times‘ decision to disclose the president’s secret order authorizing certain domestic wiretaps without a warrant. Some readers are concerned that reporting about this program might jeopardize government efforts to prevent terrorist attacks. Others wonder why we did not publish the story when we first learned of it.

It is impossible to fully answer those questions without getting into specifics of when and how we learned what we learned. That would entail violating pledges of confidentiality that are important to our ability to continue reporting on sensitive subjects of national interest.

We can say the following:…

The responses then repeat the Keller statement of December 16, already discussed at length in the Action Alert.

Some of these emails were prefaced with hostile comments: “I doubt you’re interested in an explanation, but…I’ll give it to you anyway,” Keller’s assistant wrote to one activist. “You can read into it any conspiracy theory you want.” And some closed with statements like “I doubt you’ve even read [the Times story].”

In response to a message titled “Glad I’m Not a Subscriber to the NYT,” which noted that the sender had read Vanity Fair‘s critique of the Judith Miller affair (1/06), Keller himself retorted, “It’s interesting to note that you don’t read the paper—but, based on a magazine article, and FAIR, you can make all sorts of judgments about journalistic integrity.” Surely Keller is aware that his paper has millions more readers than subscribers—NYTimes.com boasts of having more than 21 million readers worldwide. But even if the letter-writer were not a reader of the paper, the idea that one cannot derive a valid opinion from secondary sources would seem to call into question the very idea of the New York Times, which is in the business of telling readers about things that they didn’t experience firsthand.

One activist who called Keller’s office reported that Ceribelli’s initial response to his concerns was, “So what are you going to do, sue?” and that she repeatedly accused FAIR of having “an agenda,” as if to thereby discount the caller’s criticisms. In a follow-up email, Ceribelli explained that “the ‘sue’ remark was in jest” and apologized “if my humor was out of order.”

The attitude suggested by such remarks towards the readers the Times serves is troubling, as is the refusal to answer any of the questions raised in the FAIR alert (questions that could certainly have been addressed without jeopardizing any “pledges of confidentiality”): Why did the Times accept government assurances that the program “raised no legal questions,” rather than seeking independent opinions? Would the Times have published the story had Risen not been putting out a book? What other revelations from Risen’s book did the Times refuse to publish?

Times public editor Byron Calame wrote (1/1/06) that he submitted a list of 28 questions (which has now expanded to 35), and that Keller refused to answer a single one. Times readers—and the public in general—deserve to know more about why such a crucial story was withheld for so long.

ACTION: If you haven’t contacted Keller’s office yet, tell him that his December 16 statement is an unsatisfactory response to the unanswered questions remaining about his decision to hold the wiretap story. If you’ve already contacted Keller, take your complaints to Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr.


Bill Keller

Executive Editor, New York Times



Arthur Sulzberger, Jr.

Publisher, New York Times