Bill Keller, Man for all Times (Part II)

GUEST: Bill Keller
AIR DATE: 05/25/2013
VTR: 04/11/13

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And as I noted last time, for years and years I’ve been reading what today’s guest has written, assigned, edited or had edited for The New York Times, long before I had the temerity to ask him to join us here.

Bill Keller became the Times Executive Editor a decade ago. He had joined the paper in 1984 in the Washington bureau, was a Times correspondent in Moscow from 1986 to 1991, the last three years as its Bureau Chief, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for his coverage of the USSR.

He then became The Times bureau chief in Johannesburg, then the paper’s Foreign News Editor, then its Managing Editor, then its top newsman as Executive Editor.

Now Bill Keller is a much-read Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times, truly a man for all times.

So, let’s pick up now where we left off last time which had to do with my asking you a whole slew of questions that occurred to me as important and one of them comes from a Times story in 2008, “Panel at the Times Proposes Steps to Increase Credibility”.

KELLER: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: You were Executive Editor, a panel or a committee that had been appointed by you, reported to you about steps to be taken to increase the paper’s credibility.

KELLER: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: Did they work? Did you take them and did they work?

KELLER: Yes, we took them and for the most part they’ve worked. You certainly don’t want to declare “Mission Accomplished” … that’s a …

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

KELLER: … that’s a phrase I avoid at all cost. The, the committee was a consequence of, as I’m sure many of your viewers recall … a couple of scandals … one, one that was described as a scandal, rightly, was the fabrication of stories by a young reporter named Jason Blair, who had gotten away with, sort of serial fabrications in the pages of The Times.

The second which was … I don’t think The Times described as a scandal … but a lot of other people did … was the … some bad stories that we ran about … in the run-up to the war in Iraq … credulous stories about the Bush Administration’s claims about weapons of mass destruction.

HEFFNER: Did that, by the way … let me interrupt you … did that fall into the category of printing what people say because you’re being fair minded? Stories that didn’t pass the smell test?

KELLER: No, I think … I think the problem there was a different one. Some of it was just a tendency to go with the conventional wisdom. And while there were dissenting voices, the view of most Democrats and Republicans at the time was that Saddam posed some kind of a threat.

He used chemical weapons against his own people. He had … at one time … had a fairly robust nuclear program. So … and, and I think we had not all had our sense of skepticism about the Bush Administration’s veracity fully developed yet … (laugh) at that point.

So that the problem was partially sort of slipping into the conventional wisdom, not making an effort to seek out the dissenting voices, compounded by the thrill of the exclusive.

You know we … a lot of the stories that, that I ended up writing an apology for were splashed at the top of the front page and they were, they were exclusives. And there, and there is a sort of … it’s like catnip … when somebody says to you … “You know you’re the only one who has this story, it’s solid, you know, go with it” and all your … you know all your competitors are going to pick up the paper and, and have conniptions about it.

And that is an impulse to be contained and resisted (laugh). I think that’s certainly one of the lessons from, from that whole experience.

HEFFNER: But the question now goes on, continues … was it successful …

KELLER: Was it successful? Well, we did a number of things. We appointed a Public Editor. We’re now on our fifth Public Editor, who has the freedom to ask any questions, the space in the paper and on our website to publish unedited, to respond to reader questions and complaints.

HEFFNER: How did that work out?

KELLER: Well …

HEFFNER: You thought it a success?

KELLER: I think it was … yes … I think … yeah, I think on balance I would call it a success, although you would get a very divided vote if you polled the staff of The New York Times.

HEFFNER: Even now?

KELLER: Even now …

HEFFNER: Or particularly now?

KELLER: … even now …I think there’s, you know, not particularly now … I think actually the current Public Editor has developed a healthy respect among the staff. I mean I haven’t polled them, but I, I think she’s … I think she’s done a good job. She’s been very, you know, fair. She’s also seen her role not as … certainly not as an apologist for the paper …

HEFFNER: Oh, no. (Laugh)

KELLER: … but certainly not. But not as a sort of press critic, either. It’s more of a … a … I mean she certainly has scolded the paper on several occasions, and I think because she doesn’t, isn’t just a scold, her advice is taken quite seriously and there have been some things that have, have changed … I think as a direct consequence of her.

HEFFNER: Where you one of the ones at The Times who opposed the National News Council, that Norman Isaacs and Abe Raskin had run and tried to get your support for?

KELLER: Ah, it was … it was before … that was before my time as an Editor that it came on, although I never had much use for the idea.

HEFFNER: You didn’t?

KELLER: No.

HEFFNER: Doesn’t it fit into the Ombudsperson?

KELLER: Well, I didn’t have … at that time I didn’t have much use for the idea of a Public Editor, either. I mean we, we were all sort of raised to think, “Wait a second, we’re the readers’ advocate … that’s our job and if we’re doing it badly, you know, we should be called to account. But you don’t need to bring some …” this was my thinking at the time, “some outsider in to, you know, to, to serve as an Ombudsman”. I was, I think, for a long time very skeptical of the value of that. And besides I would have said back then, “You know, readers are just going to think that that’s, you know, somebody who’s, who’s on the payroll of the paper and therefore not a reliable outsider or critic.” He’s really not going to call you when you do something wrong, if it’s … you know, if it’s too embarrassing.

You know I’ve, I’ve definitely come around on that subject because I think it has … when you get … when you get the right person in the job … ah, ah … I think it does contribute to our credibility and it gives us another set of eyes.

And the fact is while our job as the editors of the paper was to be the readers’ advocate, we didn’t always do a great job at it.

You know, the, the stories before the war in Iraq are a, a good example of that. But there are certainly others. So it, it doesn’t hurt to have another set of eyes.

HEFFNER: There is another question that went around and that is the question of not indicating sources, as a matter that made people question the credibility …

KELLER: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … of all newspapers that did it.

KELLER: And in response to that we did a couple of things. One of them was we declared as policy that an Editor has the right to know your … the name of your source … the identity of your source.

One editor. And if you’re … if it’s such a sensitive source that it has to be the Executive Editor, so be it. If it’s, you know, a sort of a more routine confidential source, you know, before an Editor or the Washington Bureau Chief or somebody … but, but an Editor has a right to know.

And, and that’s so that the Editor can take into account whether you’re … not just … I don’t worry too much about people making up sources … it’s not, not to check the existence of the source … but to question you a little bit on whether the source had an ax to grind. Or whether the source had first hand information and didn’t just hear it from, from somebody else.

And that has, has kept up … the Editors still, certainly while I was Executive Editor and I’m sure Jill Abramson … under Jill Abramson the current Executive Editor … Editors exercise the right to quiz you a little bit about your sources when … in an anonymous story.

HEFFNER: But the reader is still reading “two people said, three people said …”

KELLER: Right.

HEFFNER: … but without they’re being named.

KELLER: Well, that’s …the, the second attempt at a remedy and one that did not … has not, I think, been entirely successful, was that we would cut back radically on the gratuitous use of anonymous sources.

Because in Washington, it’s … it’s just the culture that people speak off the record. And it often makes no sense. And we have urged reporters not to be so acquiescent when somebody says, “This is off the record”. And not to, to let them tell you after the fact that it’s off the record.

We’ve issued a policy … this is some … one of the things that was done in response to the Public Editor’s column … issued a column saying we are not going to engage in quote approval, where what sometimes happens is … or at least used to happen, I think it’s happening a lot less at The Times now … a reporter would run a quote by an official, or the official spokesman … and the spokesman would say, “Well, change this, change this and change this”. So that what you’re reporting is not what the person actually said, but some watered down version of it.

That’s, that is one of those battles that Editors just have to fight and re-fight and re-fight because it is easy and comfortable to have an off the record conversation with somebody. And sometimes it’s hard … you know, you fear that if you insist that what they say is on the record, you’re not going to get the information you really want. But it’s, it’s a battle worth fighting.

HEFFNER: Do you think that all of these steps that the panel reported to you as something you must take have resulted in a change credibility for The Times and I would ask, for journalism generally?

KELLER: Well, I’m not sure that what we do at The Times necessarily translates into the, the public opinion of journalists generally. Which is extremely low. But it’s a little bit like those polls that they do about Congress.

You know, if you ask people what they think of Congress … the, the, the approval rate is single digits. If you ask them about their own Congressman, oh, they think he’s great and they love the fact that he kept them from closing the Post Office and they really liked, you know, his speech on such-and-such.

It’s something similar with your news outlets. People generally think that news outlets are not to be trusted. But the one that they read or watch regularly, they have more confidence in.

HEFFNER: Makes sense.

KELLER: Yeah, it does.

HEFFNER: Otherwise it would be a self-condemnation.

KELLER: Yeah. I don’t have any polling to say one way or the other whether this, the, the specific credibility of The New York Times has, has changed one way or another since this. I hope that it has been taken as what it was intended to be which is a demonstration that we want to be ruthless about accuracy and fairness.

HEFFNER: That’s such a strange statement, though, because I would have thought that The Times, which is constantly reporting on polls …

KELLER: (Laugh)

HEFFNER: … constantly … would be very much interested in polling public opinion about this issue about itself.

KELLER: You know, the, the … the research that is done at The Times about The Times is done on the business side, not, not so much on the newsroom.

As Executive Editor I had some opportunity to see it, it tended to be more focused on “What can we do to make the paper more to your liking?” and it was … it tended to be more focus groups … reader groups, reader/focus groups … rather than polling. Polling’s fairly expensive.

We … I do remember some polling that was done kind of in …. I think even before I became Executive Editor … that was … that asked questions that I, I liked the answers to, so I used that poll all the time.

One of them was asking people … this was at the time when the paper changed from being a New York paper to being a national paper. It expanded its distribution dramatically across the country.

And they did some polling to ask people “Why are you, you know, resident of Cleveland, Ohio or Los Angeles, California, reading a paper that has New York in the title?” and the answers … the two answers that came back most often were “foreign news” … I liked this study because at the time I was Foreign Editor … so I quoted it all the time and, and culture. Specifically, not just pop culture, but you know high culture, so called …

HEFFNER: Right.

KELLER: … you know books and symphonies and opera and art. And, I’m sure that that poll is, is too old to be valid anymore, although I expect the results wouldn’t be all that different if you did such a poll to day.

HEFFNER: Again, it makes sense. Why did you question … why did you put out … why did you do that column on questioning candidates about their religious views?

KELLER: (Clears throat) I wrote that column in the sort of early middle of the Republican primary season, when we had already had several of what seemed to be hundreds of debates and, and … and religion kept popping up in the campaign on the, on the … who was sort of more religious than somebody else, who could be more God-fearing.

And, it’s a subject that I think journalists are a little squeamish about … it, it seems, I think, to us somewhat invasive to ask people about what they believe.

HEFFNER: Isn’t it?

KELLER: No, I think … I think it is … I mean I believe in a zone of privacy even for public figures and I think you ask questions about somebody’s beliefs respectfully … I don’t think you mock them for what they believe even if their, you know, religion is, is something that’s out of the main stream.

But I think it has a bearing on somebody … on the behavior of somebody who wants to be President. It tells you something about … or may tell you something about whether they care about science. I mean if somebody tells me … a candidate for President tells me that they don’t … they think of evolution as a theory and that … or, or that the believe, literally in the Biblical story of, of how the earth was created.

That would give me pause because I would wonder whether they would pay attention to climate science or science on the health effects of food or tobacco.

You know, you … I, I like … I, I don’t care one way or the other whether the … my President is … practices one religion or another. But I want them to be fact-based in how they make their policies.

HEFFNER: What was the result of your column?

KELLER: Well …

HEFFNER: What feedback did you get?

KELLER: Yeah. I, I don’t think it changed much in terms of the discussion, but I did get quite a bit of feedback. A lot of it quite thoughtful. Some people thought that the tone of the column, which was a little on the irreverent side, I will admit … was, was not respectful enough of people’s religious beliefs and they … and some people thought that grilling somebody about their religion was just not acceptable. I think most people … most of the response was, was more understanding than that. I don’t think it’s particularly changed …

HEFFNER: How about the column, “How To Die”.

KELLER: “How to Die” was a column about my father-in-law who died last year in England. He … my wife is English … her mother was American, her father was, was English.

He died in the British hospital system and he, he died under something they call the Liverpool Protocol, which is a kind of a hospice care but introduced into hospitals. It exists in most English hospitals and in some … has spread to some other European countries.

And as several readers pointed out afterwards … you can get something sort of comparable to that in, in American hospitals, but you have to know to ask for it.

In England there is an active protocol that … they have a discussion between the doctors, the nurses, the patient and the family when, when the doctors believe that end of life is near … that what they … they can’t fix what ails you.

And it’s … it presents the patient and the family with choices about how aggressive they should be in treating it, including the option of basically saying “Okay, you’re now dying and we will withdraw nutrients, we will withdraw hydration, we will take off the breathing mask so that you can actually, if you’d like, kiss your wife.

We will make you as comfortable as we can, we will continue to give you the pain killers, but you have the option of accepting the fact that you’re going to die.

My, my father-in-law died a good death, it was a … he died with dignity, he had his family around him, there was no sort of clatter of equipment and nurses bustling in and out to take his temperature every 15 minutes. He was allowed to die and, and I, I mean I described it in the column … my wife was there for all of it … and it was tremendously moving. And, and I talked to a number of doctors, palliative care specialists in particular about why that’s not more widely available in the US. And the answer was … the short answer was “Death Panels”.

HEFFNER: Right.

KELLER: The politicians that … the Sarah Palins and Michele Bachmanns of the Right had kind of caricatured this, this sort of care, or at least doctors were afraid that they would be targeted for that kind of caricature. You know as if this was going in and, you know, committing euthanasia. So that, that was the point of the column.

HEFFNER: I was so …

KELLER: I’ve discovered by the way (laugh) that, you know, writing about intense experiences in your own life, produces a different kind of a reader reaction from what you get when you write about politics.

I guess that’s sort of obvious, but the two columns I have written that have gotten the most voluminous and most kind of intimate and personal response were that one and one that I wrote about … my wife and I went through an abortion of a pregnancy that had gone terribly wrong.

And I wrote about that and, and it was with some, I think, ambivalence about the abortion debate. And that got a … it got such a strong response and such a different response. People writing in about their own experiences. All over the map. People who wrote in and said, “We gave birth to a child with a, a medical problem and we’re so happy we did”. And for people who said, “We gave birth to a child with a severe handicap and it ruined our lives.” Or people who chose to end the pregnancy. And it was so moving that my wife and I printed out all of the emails … that was before they posted comments on the articles, so it was all in the form of emails … and put them in a binder and we’ve kept them.

HEFFNER: That kind of column doesn’t come often, does it?

KELLER: No. I mean (clears throat) …

HEFFNER: The desire to …

KELLER: … we all, we all stick a little bit of ourselves in, in the columns, maybe more than we should. But ….

HEFFNER: Why do you say that, “Maybe more than we should”?

KELLER: Well, I, I think … you know … you’re, you’re always a little bit in danger of coming across a ego-centric, if not narcissistic, when you’re a columnist. The fact that you have this great platform and are free to say pretty much whatever you want is a temptation to hubris … the slippery slope to hubris (laugh) … and, you know, I think sometimes … sometimes I catch myself using a little bit too much of the first person pronoun.

HEFFNER: How much of the newspaper today, and I won’t say The Times … how much of journalism today should be, in your estimation, personal commentary … opinion?

KELLER: Well, thanks to the Internet there is no space limit for, for anything (laugh). I don’t …

HEFFNER: And in the printed press?

KELLER: Well, you know, in the printed press … we, The Times has two pages at the back of the A section that are opinion every day. Columns in the new section that are, that have some attitude in them, but, but are not intended to be partisan opinion …

HEFFNER: I like that … attitude.

KELLER: Yeah. And a section, The Sunday Review on Sunday which is, is very heavily opinion. And that feels like a pretty good proportion.

I … I think the important question is … or the potential danger is that because opinion is easier to do, it doesn’t require actually sending people far off places … you can get it for free … people will write their opinion … send you their opinion for free and they’re happy to have you publish it. There is a temptation to skew more towards opinion. And some of the websites that, you know, have been very popular and successful skew quite heavily towards opinion because it’s almost free, or is free.

HEFFNER: Setting popularity aside … journalism and your judgment of journalism … and we just have a minute, minute and a half left … how did you feel about the move from news of the week to opinion of the day. I used to depend upon that section of The New York Times … as a teaching device.

KELLER: Well, you know, I resisted it for a time and there is still in that section, it’s now a mix of opinion and news analysis. I mean I, I was a fan of that section, I liked to write for it when I was a reporter … it was a chance to sort of stand back from the story you’d been covering frantically on deadline and write something a little more reflective. So I, I valued it a lot.

But, you know, opinion is … I think opinion is a valuable part of what we do, too. And the important thing is not whether we have a little more opinion, but whether the opinion is of high quality, thoughtful and we hold it to a standard comparable to the standard that we hold news stories to. And, and I think The Times does pretty well at that.

HEFFNER: I’m being told to say “Good bye” … I hope they’ll be a time when you’ll come back and we’ll talk more …

KELLER: I’d be happy to.

HEFFNER: …. Like to talk about more opinion. Thanks, Bill Keller.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

And do visit the Open Mind Website at thirteen.org/openmind to reprise this program online right now or to draw upon our Archive of 1,500 or so other Open Mind and related programs. That’s thirteen.org/openmind.

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