William Safire asserted in his Nov. 1 New York Times column that journalists have a special name for stories they deliberately withhold from publication until they can do the most political damage. They’re called “keepers,” he wrote, and he more than implied that CBS News intended to zap the Bush/Cheney ticket in the last hours of the campaign with a keeper of its own about the missing munitions at Al-Qaqaa.
Having never heard of a keeper before reading the Safire column, I banged on Nexis and Google for a couple of hours in search of an earlier mention. The only ones I found were in two previous Safire columns, one from 1985 and one from 2003. I also polled two dozen experienced journalists to see if any of them had ever encountered the term or were familiar with the practice. All who e-mailed back said they had never heard of keepers. (My correspondents were Robert G. Kaiser, Stephen G. Smith, Glenn Simpson, David Binder, Dean Baquet, Mark Leibovich, Daniel Okrent, Allan M. Siegal, Tim Rutten, Steve Chapman, Ann L. McDaniel, and Jacob Weisberg.)
In an interview, Safire defended his use of the word as “absolutely accurate,” although he couldn’t cite a published example outside of his own work. I wrote up my findings in this column and promised to report back if I found additional keeper evidence. Slate reader Bill Adams soon alerted me to an earlier Safire reference to keepers on Page 354 of the 1978 edition of Safire’s Political Dictionary. The entry reads:
KEEPER: a news story held for use at a more newsworthy time.This journalistic term can be used to describe an innocent delay of a story until a more propitious moment, or a manipulative delay of a story until it can do the most damage.”It is largely in the executive offices of the printed press and the networks that slanting the news and its editorial evaluation is to be found,” wrote Arthur Krock, former Washington correspondent of the New York Times, in a 1975 book. “Important in the process are: the placement of the news by which it can be minimized or magnified; and holding back news stories called ‘keepers’ for publication when they will have the stronger impact in forming public opinion aligned with the editorial policy of the newspaper concerned.”
I shared my etymological news with Safire and asked him to help me locate the book from which he drew the definition. After some digging, Safire located the quotation on Page 229 of Krock’s The Consent of the Governed in a chapter titled “The Power of the Press.” (The book was published in 1971, not 1975.)
Who was Arthur Krock? Krock worked at the New York Times from 1927 to 1966, headed its Washington bureau for a couple of decades, and wrote the paper’s “In the Nation” column for 32 years. Scotty Reston’s biographer, John F. Stacks, describes Krock as “an imposing figure at the Times and in Washington. Roosevelt disliked him intensely for his conservatism, mockingly referring to him as ‘that Tory Krock-pot.’ ”
Tellingly, Krock accuses nobody by name of having deliberately “minimized or magnified” the news with keepers. He had been retired from the Times forfive years when The Consent of the Governed came out, and he died in 1974 at the age of 87. You’d think that if he had had the goods on some underhanded publisher, editor, or broadcast executive, he would have used this last opportunity to finger the guilty. As Barry Goldwater once put it, the wonderful thing about being old is you don’t give a damn what anybody thinks of you anymore.
But just because Krock doesn’t name names in his book doesn’t mean that keepers never ever existed. Perhaps a press scholar will succeed in unearthing an earlier reference to them. We know, for example, that William Randolph Hearst, Colonel Robert R. McCormick, and the other press moguls who roamed the land while Krock was in his prime loved to bludgeon their personal and ideological enemies with newsprint.
Likewise, I’m ready to hear evidence supporting the claim that a modern news organization has intentionally futzed with an election. Political campaigns routinely leak negative stories about their opponents to the press just before Election Day in hopes of tipping the contest. (I wonder if Safire learned about that dark art while serving in the Nixon White House.)
But Safire’s column isn’t about rampaging mid-20th-century media monsters. And it isn’t about political campaigns feeding dirty tricks to reporters. With this piece, Safire aims to convince his readers—sans proof—that 1) modern media organizations corruptly spike (or hold) stories to protect (or damage) candidates and 2) that this skullduggery is so common that today’s journalists refer to the stories as “keepers.”
Yet in all my research, I’ve located only two journalists who believe in keepers, one who is about to turn 75 and one who died 30 years ago.
If you find evidence of a keeper, drop me a line at email@example.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)