Press Box

More Sympathy for Bill Keller

Defending the New York Times executive editor one more time.

Two days ago I defended the New York Times for publishing its Dec. 16 NSA domestic spying scoop when and how it did.

I did a fine job, of course, but I could have done much better. So, I’m back.

My column, titled “Sympathy for Bill Keller,” spritzed a close reading of the Times story ( Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts,”by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, and its follow-ups) with a shot of speculation toshield the Times from its critics. Some on the left think the paper guaranteed the re-election of George W. Bush by holding its scoop for more than a year. On the right, some say the paper published its scoop when it did to move the Iraqi elections off Page 1 or to undermine the reauthorization of the Patriot Act.

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I stuck my nose into the debate 1) because I thought the criticisms stupid, and 2) because Executive Editor Keller had declined to discuss the back story of his story.

Journalists generally don’t talk about how they got their really big stories—especially while they’re still getting them—so, don’t read too much into Keller’s brush-off. But if I’m allowed to continue to impute only noble motives to Keller, let me offer another possible explanation for the delay between the Times “getting” the NSA story and finally publishing it.

The Times scoop acknowledges the paper held the story for “a year” at the White House’s request. The New York Observer claims the delay was more like 14 months, reporting that lead author James Risen went on book leave shortly after the paper decided to hold the piece, and that it was resurrected when he returned to the Times’ Washington bureau in June 2005. At that point, Risen tried again to get the article in the paper. Citing multiple sources, the Observer states that the “decision to move forward with the story was accelerated” by the impending January publication of Risen’s book State of War: Secret History of the CIA and the Bush administration, in which the NSA program is presumably detailed. (“Multiple sources” is journaleese for “at least two and maybe more.”)

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Nobody—not even Times critics—claims that the story the Times “got” and “held” in late 2004 was the same story it published on Dec. 16. As long as I’m orbiting Planet Conjecture, who’s to say that the 2004 story met Times standards for publication? The Times may have held the story in part because the White House asked them to, but also because it didn’t earn the editors’ approval.

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If we assume Risen spent this book leave advancing his story, instead of sharpening his pencils as most book authors do, the nature of the story he “got” surely must have changed. Additional anonymous sources may well have stepped forward to cooperate, adding greater specificity to his account. That’s exactly what Keller’s Dec. 16 statement claims. When the Times went to the Bush administration in 2004, the White House assured the paper that the spying program was legal and undergoing “a variety of legal checks,” reads Keller’s statement. This year, the Times learned that legal questions about the spying program “loomed larger within the government” than the paper“had previously understood.”

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Unremarked-upon in the debate so far is the fact that Risen has greater personal leeway as a book author than as a reporter for the Times. Writing a book, he need only satisfy the standards—such as they are—of his New York publishing house. The fact that Risen’s book on the subject was due out in January would have been a nice card for Keller to play on Dec. 6 when he met with President Bush, who tried to persuade the paper not to run the scoop. To Keller’s ears, Bush’s plea must have sounded as good as confirmation.

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“Mr. President,” I can hear Keller saying, “We listened to you a year ago when you said we didn’t understand the complete scope of the NSA story and that we should spike it. You might have been right. But now, thanks to our reporter, we do understand its scope, and we’re going to publish unless you can convince me otherwise. Besides, this story is soon to appear in a book that’s outside my editorial supervision. Before I publish, is there anything in the Times version that will affect operational security so we can consider redacting those sections?”

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Say, there’s a winning strategy for editors! Get every one of your investigative aces to sign a book contract so that you can play good cop/bad cop with authorities when it comes to publishing the newspaper version.

I kid. But only a little.

As long as I’m toasting Keller based on wild speculation, let me tip my glass to Risen. Unlike another national security reporter who will remain nameless, he appears to have struggled again and again to get his scoop in his newspaper before it appeared in his book.

******

As I noted in my previous sign-off, I’m writing the first volume of Bill Keller’s memoirs because he’s so shy about telling his side of the story and I’m so good at it. I asked readers to contribute possible titles, and here’s the first bunch: My Life as a Billy Joe Shaver Impersonator or Hostage to Power: The Judy Miller Years, contributed by a Times contributor given anonymity because he fears retribution for wit; D’oh!, contributed by Paul J. Camp; The Double Standard of Slothful Citizens: Why Americans Blame the Media for Everything From Terrorism to Cultural Rot, contributed by Laura J. Wallace; I’m the Real Bill Deal, contributed by Bob Armstrong; Bush’s Belly: How the New York Times Gut-Checked the President Yet Still Got Blamed for Blowing the Public’s Order, contributed by Jeff Boxer; Better to Live on Your Knees, contributed by Ralph Martin. Keep those Keller memoir titles coming to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

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