Press Box

Hell ’n’ Keller

Bloggers and critics put the New York Times executive editor through it. He gives it back.

Keller time

Not that long ago, the executive editor of the New York Times resided at a greater remove from the public than the pope. Oh, he’d attend the American Society of Newspaper Editors convention to look down on his colleagues. Or he might sit for a long profile with The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta or drive the Ryder van over to Columbia University in the spring to retrieve his paper’s Pulitzer Prize haul. But for the most part the executive editor lived by Benjamin Disraeli’s motto, “Never complain, never explain.”

“Not that long ago” was just 20 months ago, when Howell Raines was removed from the position and replaced by Bill Keller. Since assuming command, Keller has moved both the newspaper and his office down from Mount Olympus.

While Keller has yet to park his desk next to the tkts booth in Times Square, he’s become the most accessible executive editor in the newspaper’s history. He routinely answers the phone when journalists call to report on the Times—which wasn’t always the case with his predecessors. He appointed a well-toothed public editor, Daniel Okrent, who criticizes the paper in its own pages. When Okrent columns piss Keller off, he’s happy to fire back. Last year, a public editor column on polling displeased Keller, and he told the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz that he’d told Okrent that the piece was “an ill-informed swipe.”

Keller speaks about the Times, too, and he does so in a meaningful fashion instead of couching his words so they can’t possibly backfire. Example: When USA Today asked if the greater media, including the Times, is liberal, he took the point.

“Traditionally, because our origins are urban, urban cultural liberals tend to come across [in coverage] as more three-dimensional than conservatives or suburban Republicans,” Keller told the paper. “But we have made a concrete effort, for a while, to make sure we are doing the America stories as well as the urban stories.”

Earlier this month, A-list blogger Jeff Jarvis of submitted an “open invitation” to Keller, asking him and Times editors to reserve a day to meet with Jarvis and other bloggers to discuss the paper’s failings and explore how the Times and bloggers could “help each other find stories and find the truth.” Howell Raines wouldn’t have read the message let alone replied. In his funny e-mail to Jarvis, Keller opened with the backside of his hand: “I admire the initiative you have shown in appointing yourself the representative of tens of thousands of bloggers in what you call ‘the citizens’ media.” Then he settled down for business, agreeing to an hourlong online chat with the Jarvis caucus. For entertainment’s sake, I hope the chat explores a quotation the Columbia University Spectator attributed this week to Keller in which he compared a bad blog to a “one-man circle jerk.”

When I knocked a Times storyin a December “Press Box,” Keller rallied behind his reporter by sending me not one but two e-mail critiques of my attack. How do you damn the Times as an arrogant monolith that’s impervious to criticism when the boss takes activist measures like these?

I know this piece sounds like a 10-days-late Valentine, but I find Keller’s openness (by traditional Times standards) so … adorable. Obviously, he hopes the rest of the newsroom will follow his example and accept a little criticism without sobbing or throwing things, the reflex of all reporters.

In e-mail to me, Keller calls his methods “right and necessary.”

The credibility of the serious press is under assault on several flanks. There is a debate underway, sometimes silly but sometimes profound, about whether it is possible or even desirable to have an impartial press based on robust, empirical reporting and fair-minded analysis. There is some confusion out there about how what we do differs in kind from Fox or Instapundit or Rush Limbaugh. We should be in that conversation. At least we should try to engage those who seem to share a genuine interest in a well-informed citizenry—those who are not driven by sheer ideological (or commercial) malice.Some journalists get into this work to be players, to right wrongs, to change the world. The best investigative reporters have at least a streak of that. Most journalists, I think, like being on the sidelines, witnessing, analyzing, but a little detached, neither on the field nor sitting with the fans of either team. I’ve always been in the second category. I like the sidelines just fine. But when the fight is over the role and future of journalism itself, the sidelines are a pretty untenable position. So I give the occasional speech, I try to respond to press critics whose minds are at least ajar, I answer as much mail as I can, I make myself available to the Public Editor. …

Keller acknowledges the downsides of Timesian glasnost, explaining that “you could spend your entire life explaining and defending what you do, to the point where there’s no time to do it.” If he corresponds with one blogger but not another, he appears unresponsive. If he sticks up for his reporters, he appears defensive or dismissive. And he’s annoyed by the way his comments “get picked up in pieces, turned sideways, twisted and mis-analyzed until people have roused themselves to a high pitch of indignation over something they think I believe when I may not believe it at all.” (Yes, he recognizes the irony of his gripe.)

One could argue that Keller has no choice but to engage his critics, that the Times, while still a colossus, isn’t the imperial force that it was 10 years ago thanks to the competition and criticism it faces on the Web. Had Howell Raines understood this he might still be executive editor. Give Keller an attaboy for opening the drapes and allowing a little light to fall inside W. 43rd Street, and give him credit for taking his lumps in public and for returning them in a professional fashion. But openness doesn’t automatically produce great journalism. As the man said, you can only explain yourself so much. You’ve still got to put out a newspaper.


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