Press Box

Keepers—No Finders

William Safire’s dubious discovery.

That the press might hold a blockbuster story until the closing days of a campaign in order to damage a candidate is not so paranoid a notion that such an accusation can’t get a public hearing. Today’s (Nov. 1) New York Times devotes part of a 1,500-word news story (“Media Timing and the October Surprise“) to the accusation that the Times and CBS News timed their Al-Qaqaa scoops to subvert the Bush-Cheney ticket.

“Karl Rove, Mr. Bush’s chief political strategist, said he thought the paper deliberately timed the report in an effort to hurt Mr. Bush’s chances in the week before the election,” the Times reports, as it proceeds to knock down the allegation.

Meanwhile, over on today’s Times op-ed page, columnist William Safire levels the same charge against CBS News (“Osama Casts His Vote“) but does Rove one better: Safire claims the technique of deliberately holding a story to punish a candidate in the 11th hour is common enough in journalism to have a name: It’s called a “keeper,” he writes. And he believes there is enough evidence that CBS News was aiming an Oct. 31 60 Minutes “keeper” at Bush that CBS’s current internal investigation of the forged National Guard documents should be expanded to include the Al-Qaqaa affair.

Safire writes in his column:

Journalists call that hyping device a “‘keeper”—holding a story for the moment when it causes the most damage—which the victim cannot refute until after Election Day, by which time it’s too late.

Alas, nobody but Safire seems to have heard of “keepers.” When I pounded on Nexis and Google for previous mentions, I found them nowhere but in two previous Safire op-ed columns, “Finder’s Keeper” (Dec. 22, 1985) and “The French Connection” (March 13, 2003).

Safire writes in his 1985 lede:

A “keeper,” in newspaper parlance, is a story held, or kept, for publication at a time it can have the most political effect. This too-careful timing of news is not as nefarious as the “roorback,” or unanswerable election-eve smear, but in the U.S. is frowned on as advocacy journalism.

Safire’s 2003 column defines a “keeper” more obliquely, calling it a term journalists use to describe a story “held back for publication at a critical moment. … “

I polled two dozen distinguished journalists today, but none were familiar with the concept or could recall having heard the word used this way. Here’s a sampling from my respondents:

Washington Post Associate Editor Robert G. Kaiser: “I never heard the term, and consider the whole idea repugnant. And history is full of examples of responsible news organizations not rushing stories into print despite their potential for affecting the outcome of an election. Our post-election publication of the Packwood story jumps to mind.”

Brookings Institution Vice President for Communications Stephen G. Smith: “In 30 years of journalism, I worked as a reporter at four newspapers, as the Washington news editor of a large newspaper group, as a top-level editor at Time and Newsweek, and as editor of National Journal and U.S. News, and this is the first time I’ve heard the word ‘keeper.’ The apparent plan by CBS to run the munitions story two days before the election was also the first time I’ve heard of a news organization intentionally delaying a story in order to cause maximum damage. Either I’m naive—or perhaps ‘keeper’ is only a term of art at the Times and CBS.”

Wall Street Journal reporter Glenn Simpson: “I have considerable respect for William Safire, but in 15 years covering Washington I have never encountered this concept.”

Retired New York Times reporter David Binder: “I never, ever heard that one (’keeper’) either growing up in a newspaper family in the politically nasty state of Illinois, or later working amid the equally nasty politics of Kentucky.”

Los Angeles Times Managing Editor Dean Baquet: “I’ve worked for [five] newspapers—two in New Orleans, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times—and I’ve never, ever heard that term. And having worked in two of the most politically charged places in America, Chicago and Louisiana, I think I would have heard it if it was in common currency. I should also say that I’ve never seen a newspaper hold a story to have impact on a campaign. To the contrary, most papers get particularly cautious in the days before a campaign.”

Washington Post reporter Mark Leibovich: “Never heard of ‘keeper.’ “

New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent: “I noticed it, too. New to me.” 

New York Times Assistant Managing Editor Allan M. Siegal: “I have never heard the expression used in that context. (I’ve always thought a keeper was a movie scene that didn’t need to be reshot.)”

Los Angeles Times Associate Features Editor and Senior Writer Tim Rutten: “I’ve never heard the phrase employed in that way and never have been involved with a news organization that even thought in those terms. News organizations don’t work against particular candidates, they compete against each other and the logic of competition dictates that you publish or broadcast as quickly as you can, so you can be first and get the credit. All the fashionable theories not withstanding, news organizations live by such fairly simple Darwinian impulses; they are neither sufficiently organized nor well enough disciplined to engage in stratagems or conspiracies. I think Safire has been spending too much unsupervised time on the Internet.”

Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman: “I’ve never heard the term in 30 years in journalism and it strikes me as an invention by someone (not Safire) who has no idea how the press operates. But since I’ve never been a political reporter, I may not be much of a witness.”

Washington Post Co. Vice President and former Newsweek Washington Bureau Chief Ann L. McDaniel: “I’ve never heard of a keeper, either.”

Slate Editor Jacob Weisberg: “I’ve heard of scene-setters, leadalls, and round-ups. I’ve heard of holy shit stories, source-greasers, and stories too good to check. But I’ve never heard of a ‘keeper’—until today.”

Language maven Safire says in an interview he first heard of journalistic “keepers” when he joined the Times as a columnist in 1973. Told that his three op-eds were the only places in Nexis or Google that I could find “keepers” used in a Safirean manner, he puns that the “flame keepers” in journalism might have made it difficult to look the concept up in those databases.

Safire can’t cite any example of “keeper” being employed in his sense, but he defends his use of the word as “absolutely accurate.” He asks if I’m familiar with the concept of “roorback,” which Encarta defines as a “false and defamatory story made public to gain a political advantage.” Indeed, thanks to reading it in Safire’s 1985 column, I now am. But roorbacks are plotted by political campaigns, not journalists, I point out, and he concedes the point but holds his ground on “keepers.” 

As followers of Safire’s language column know, when the “Gotcha! Gang” spots one of his flubs, he’s generally a mensch about it. With Safire as my example, I promise to write an exonerating sequel if readers (or Safire) produce convincing evidence. Please forward your citations to (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)