Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Opinion: It's not a real good time to be Bill Keller

It's not a real good time to be Bill Keller.

I haven't read The New Yorker's latest. (As usual, subscribers get screwed.) But in between meetings this morning, I go to my desk to catch Democracy Now! and to check my (personal) e-mail. Three people formerly with the Times have repeatedly e-mailed regarding the story that appears in this week's New Yorker.

Executive editor of the Times should be a "cakewalk" at this point, one stresses over the phone. After all the blather over Jayson Blair, stepping in as the new executive editor following Howell Raines should have been a cakewalk. (Joseph Lelyveld filled in between the two.) But Judith Miller had been given free reign prior to Keller's arrival (the free reign continued after Raines left for some time) and since Blair lied in glorified feature stories but Miller's stories were treated as hard news, Keller's been playing defense since day one.

(A sport's metaphor, so maybe if someone slips this to Keller, he'll pay attention?)

Now he's in The New Yorker, pimping for the paper. "Fear and Favor" by Nicholas Lemann is a text book example of how to embarrass yourself without even trying.

Here's Keller speaking about cocktails with Karl Rove, where Rove lets Keller have it about the Times' coverage:

It was Bush accomplishments we had ignored, flaws in the Kerry record that we had put inside the paper, and a number of pieces we had done looking hard at the Bush record. In their view, that all amounted to arming the Kerry campaign.

Keller's shocked. Just shocked. Keller comes off like an idiot because he lets himself come off like one. He thinks the "rubes" (to use one friend's term) will read that and think, "See, they did do a good job. Rove was offended by them."

Any second semester poli sci student knows (and any journalist should damn well know) unless you're getting hearts & flowers from the press, you bully them. Most journalists know that any spin master is going to inflate reality in an attempt to force you to back down.

Keller knows that. But he tosses off comments as though Rove's remarks were reality-based tale. As though Rove was being honest with the press. (A first!) And everyone's talking about it.
("Didn't you read Howie Kurtz's piece?" I'm asked. No, I haven't.)

Here's Keller again:

Your initial reaction, especially in someone as ferocious as Rove, is to drop into a defensive crouch. But I try not to do that. I listened, with a fair measure of skepticism, because a lot of it is calculated. But there was some genuineness to it. He went through a long litany of complaints. I do think he was channelling a feeling about the New York Times that’s out there in the land, that we should be concerned about, or at least aware of.

Now he tries to have it both ways (such a perfect example of all that is wrong with the Times) and fails completely.

He can trash those "arm chair media critcs" who rightly questioned Judith Miller's reporting. Because "arm chair media critics" aren't official sources and the Times has to curry favor with the official sources time and again, but most of all because he's got to play "company man" and put out the company line.

One might respond that there's "a feeling about" Judith Miller's reporting "that's out there in the land, that" Keller "should be concerned about, or at least aware of." But he's doesn't allow for that because "arm chair media critics" aren't serving in the administration and, most importantly, "arm chair" media critics don't have a personal bond with Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr. the way Miller does.

(Yes, "out there, in the land" is condescending. That won't hurt Keller.)

Here's Keller later in the article:

There is a significant liberal antipathy toward the, pardon the expression, mainstream press. . . . Liberals perceive us, or claim to perceive us, as lapdogs of the Bush Administration, instigators of the war in Iraq, sellouts to big business and panderers to red-state prejudices. Some of this is probably disingenuous—calculated Mau-Mauing.

Why would they feel that way? I mean, it's not as though the Times hyped up the Jessica Lynch story and then glommed on the BBC when they exposed the realities of the non-rescue? Oh wait, the Times did hype it (less so than the Washington Post but the Times has largely avoided any blame on there part in hyping the non-"rescue"). And they did do their "conspiracy" tag on the BBC story.

Who was right? The BBC.

Back to Keller:

I think conservatives feel this way in part because for years they’ve been told they should feel this way. In a more concerted way than liberal critics, conservative critics have castigated major newspapers, especially ours, and network news broadcasts. The Wall Street Journal editorial page, the pundit choir at Fox News, right-wing columnists and talk-radio hosts, conservative authors, the scholars and opinion-mongers of Heritage and Hoover, and a fair number of conservative officeholders have made it a mantra -- 'the liberal press.' I'm far from being a conspiracy theorist, but I think this has been deliberate and I think it has some effect, especially on people who don’t actually read the New York Times.

Conspiracy theorist! Conspiracy theorist!

If the Times was reporting on Keller, and he were at another paper, that's how it would be reported. There is an attitude with the Times that helped offend people, regardless of their political belief. It's the attitude of how hard can I suck up to the administration?

It's not confined to one administration. Clinton was exempted from it, he was attacked (sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly, but always loudly). That had to do with a "class issue." The Times is all about drawing those "class" lines. And the result is that you offend a great deal of the people who read the paper with that attitude regardless of whether they're aware or not of how often spin, as opposed to reality, makes it into the paper.

Along comes the Nixon plan to demonize the mainstream press and it worked not just because of repetition but because, to focus on the Times, the paper had been far too elitist for far too long.
(Basically it's entire history.) It's done sloppy reporting to cater to administrations. It's shut down stories and shot down critics for far too long.

It's an arrogance that led to the right winning the war with the Times (over the paper's image) because people wanted to see it taken down a notch or two, they were tired of being managed.

Keller's not dealing with that, not addressing it. But he's a "company man" and he wouldn't be one if he dealt with it.

Keller came in, according to the three friends, with hopes for his post as executive-editor. He was patted on the shoulder and told "Sure, sure, sure" by Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr. And as Ochs Sulzberger rushed off, Keller was left with the impression of "busy man, but we're in this together and we'd still be talking if he wasn't so busy."

No, you wouldn't. "And Bill can be really naive. Even knowing the history of the paper as an employee, he really thought he'd make a difference at the paper."

There's this "idea or spin" that Raines lost his job as a result of Blair. That's not the case. Raines was a crusader and "it was his crusading that upset Arthur [Ochs Sulzberger, Jr.] especially taking on Augusta. Arthur, remember, made his wife quit her job. "

[I don't remember. I had no idea.]

As one former reporter who went on to better things told me on the phone today, "You got it when you said the Times is scared to break news." It's ingrained and it's been that way forever.
They are the official paper because they print the official word.

The peace protests that they don't cover in our time? They didn't cover them in great detail during Vietnam. Woodstock coverage was stressed as the epitome of the Times.

Originally, they went with their usual class attitude and portrayed it as a nightmare. (Even running an editorial with "nightmare" in the title -- according to my source.) But the Times can't stand alone. Not even when they find something repugnant ("and they found Woodstock repugnant") so the next day, realizing they grey lady was looking a bit too grey, they rush back in to cover the event with praise.

That's trying to have it both ways. And the Times repeatedly tries to do that. The current editorial board "may be their most progressive ever but remember that's comparing them to boards such as the one responsible for the post-WWII lament that it was too bad the blacks didn't realize their inferiority to whites. People forget that editorial but it's key to understanding the workings of the Times."

It was interesting to be bombarded with e-mails and calls from the three (personal e-mails and personal calls -- all were told I'd be writing about this and approved the quotes that appear).

Keller can take comfort in the fact that none of the three refer to him as an idiot. (They think he came off that way in The New Yorker, but they don't think he actually is one.) The worst anyone said about Keller was that he "really thought he was going to change the system from within -- as we used to say in college." But, this was stressed by all three, Keller doesn't matter. Keller matters in terms of what gets highlighted out of what's allowed to be printed.

He's not an editor, he's "a baby sitter." As all the executive editors of the paper are. Raines forgot that. And refused to be "reigned in." If Raines had been willing to play ball, he'd still be at the paper.

"With a look or gentle sigh, Arthur conveys exactly what the scope of the paper is, that's all he has to do. Lelyveld fit in perfectly with Arthur which is why he was invited back," explained a person who spent over a decade at the paper.

But all three expressed wonder and disbelief that Keller, who's considered "press wise," would set himself up to be a laughing stock with that interview.

At a time when Extra!'s article on how the paper killed the story on Bush's apparent wire is everywhere (even Editor & Publisher is commenting on it), Keller's on newstands in the New Yorker talking about how he needs to "ensure that the paper be respectful of the anti-choice, and homophobic, like those are the problems with the paper!"

I got an earful on various stories (especially international) that the Times might end up doing a historical correction on at some point (if pressed, as most recently, by an award being taken away) -- "otherwise, it not's happening. That's the problem with a 'family' paper -- the family can't be too critical of what was printed before because the family was always in charge."

But I was also told Keller needed to watch his back because "Arthur doesn't like it when someone's a laughing stock and he and Keller aren't that close." (Keller is, reportedly, aware of that now.)

"Here's the thing, if Bill had come off a little more angry, Arthur could laugh it off with his friends, 'you know the hired help' kind of laugh. But Bill's really damaged himself with this interview because he comes off not as a staunch defender of the paper but as a boot licker. And Arthur is rightly sensitive to charges that the paper is a lapdog. Bill underscores the charges with his comments and it's not helping that they've consistently missed out on stories recently. The family, the ones in charge, weren't real happy with the very few printed articles that bucked the official line on Vietnam but they were happy with the illusion that they were behind a powerful paper. Bill's not bucked the system, which might seem the way to go after Raines, but he's also not given Arthur anything to puff his chest out over. So Arthur's left with nothing but a boot licker when he's with his inner circle. That does not bode well for Bill."

This is not to suggest that Keller's out the door. "That's not the way Arthur works. He holds it in and keeps a running list. It's often the most minor thing, something anyone else would blow off, that ends up being the last straw. Arthur lets it build and build and then something so trivial comes up and Keller's going to be thinking, 'Well we can talk this out man to man' but the wall's already come down and there's no way for Keller to connect with him, the decision has been made."

One added in an e-mail approving their quote that there were worse things than being fired such as "remaining for a long sting after being neutered. You see those ghosts, their eyes hollowed out, haunting the halls, clinging to the hope that maybe Arthur might still yet grace them with praise and stop using them as the object of quiet ridicule."

Keller can take this entry as a slam against him. It's not. One person, when approving their quotes, stated that they hoped "someone slips this to him and Bill takes it as a heads up. The anti-choice crowd mention was a huge mistake because the family views that crowd the same way Nancy Reagan did -- as a polyester clad crowd that talks and laughs far too loud. But if he gives Arthur something to boast of, even if it's something Arthur's resistant on, he can undue the damage."

Two pointed to Maureen Dowd as someone whom "the family" disagrees with but is relatively safe. Dowd's a "little too uncouth for the family but the attention she brings to the paper makes them embrace her."

We're not a "breaking news" site. I don't hit up people I know for tips. But if something comes up that people want shared, we'll do so. Add in that one of the things we critique is the Times and that "institutional problems" are often cited in e-mails to this site when someone complains about a critique of their story, this item seemed to have a place here.

I'll also add that I was repeatedly asked, as I expressed disbelief, "Well haven't you read John L. Hess's book yet?" No, I haven't. I ended up ordering it through an independent bookstore knowing that it would take longer to arrive but wanting to support independent bookstores. (Sidebar, In Dallas e-mailed last night about ordering it from Seven Stories Press directly and reports that it arrived in five days with nice packaging -- some sort of green crepe or wrapping paper.) So for those puzzled by the Times coverage, we've got a reading assignment. (You can check your bookstores, your libraries or order from Seven Stories Press directly. The books entitled My Times: A Memoir of Dissent and, again, it's by John L. Hess.)

[Note: All quotes were approved by the three. The quotes have been altered only in that anything I recognized as a "catch phrase" or "hallmark" was stripped away by me or by them to allow them to avoid the wrath of "the family." Note as well that the three are expressing their opinions and that two left by choice but the third self-describes their own departure as being pushed out the door.]

[Last note, until I have to correct typos (I'm sure there are many above): I haven't read The New Yorker article. The quotes from the article were e-mailed to me by the three. I scanned the article online -- I haven't gotten my copy in the mail -- and confirmed that they were in the article. But I haven't read the article. I'll also add that I haven't worked at the New York Times so I can't confirm the opinions expressed to me, which is why the post is labeled "Opinion" in the title. I don't know nothing of the paper's coverage of Woodstock or of a post WWII editorial. I do trust the three and I'm quoting their opinions above. If Frank in Orlando sees them as disgruntled ex-employees, that's his, or anyone else's, right. If, when I start reading Hess, I find something that contradicts the statements of the three, I will note it in another post. And if anyone at the Times wanted to reply on the site, yeah right, there comments would be posted.]
The following comments appear in Feb. 10th's post "Community Members Weigh In on Various Topics" and are added because they pertain to remarks made in this post:

Dallas: In the opinion post yesterday, there was a reference to an editorial after WWII that I'm not aware of. But John L. Hess, in his book My Times, notes this on page 36:
When Jeanette Rankin, the first woman to be elected to Congress voted against going to war in 1917, a Times editorial called it "final proof of feminine incapacity for straight thinking." When the troops came home from the first world war and race violence broke out, the Times mourned for the prewar days when most blacks "admitted the superiority of the white race and troubles between the two races were unheard of."
There may be an editorial from WWII (I wasn't born then, let alone reading the paper) but I think this might be the editorial that was referred to. And I think, regardless of which war it was, this backs up the points made by the three reporters.

Shirley: I've photocopied and scanned in the title page and a page of text as an attachment to this e-mail. They are from Myra Friedman's Janis Joplin biography Buried Alive. From the book, page173:
After all, expressing reservations about Woodstock at that time would have been akin to complaining of gout in a nursery -- stuffy and irrelevant. One had to look out for one's self-esteem. Either that, or have a lot of guts. Thus did Barry Farrell at Life dissent from the magazine's splendor-in-the-grass "Woodstock" supplement and indicate clearly that the festival had made him nervous about the future. A Time essay treaded water. As for The New York Times, it went absolutely schizy. In the front, its news papges were cloud-borne. In the middle, its ridiculous "Nightmare in the Catskills" editorial was ridden with the spirit of Lawrence Welk; somebody had to be possessed to dream up "maddened youths." Nonetheless, the following day, the Times came up with a retraction, a sort of apology to what would soon become known as Consciousness III. The final evidence of cultural power was in; Spiro Agnew never had it so good.
This goes to the heart of what was being stated yesterday. The paper is a coward and they proved that before and will again. The most they can ever hope to do is offer the "either/or" paradigm.
Again, the above were posted 2-10-05. But while doing corrections, I thought I'd add the two remarks to this post since they clarify comments made in the text of this post.