Bill Keller, Man for all Times (Part I)

GUEST: Bill Keller
AIR DATE: 05/18/2013
VTR: 04/11/13

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And for years and years I have 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.

Yet it was his intriguing column last month on “Smart Drones” that immediately occasioned my request that he join us here, and in preparing for today’s conversation I’ve read a good many pieces that Bill Keller has written, and I hope that he and you will bear with me if I skip from one to another today. But let’s go to the Drone piece …

KELLER: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: What, what really lay behind that in your thinking?

KELLER: Mmm, I have a kind of long-standing fascination with the geekier aspects of our military. I spent a little bit of time as a Pentagon correspondent way back in the Caspar Weinberger years. And have from time to time written about one aspect or another of it and, and the technology and how it affects the ways of war, I just find fascinating.

Drones have been in the news a lot and there’s been a lot written about the kind of questions of how we use them now, whether … how much license a President should have to direct assassinations, whether there’s something sort of unsavory and antiseptic about this long distance way of, of killing bad guys. And certainly about the … those questions about the collateral damage, so called …the death of civilians in these attacks.

That’s been written about pretty well, but the one thing that had not really been touched on in, in what I was reading was the fact that the drones we have today are on a continuum and the continuum leads towards autonomy … is what they call it in the, in the military field.

That is to say, at this point there is a man in a control room … usually a man, but sometimes a woman in a control room directing the drone, firing the weapon, deciding whether or not this is the, the person that they want to get and firing it off.

We are not all that far away from a day when the machine itself decides, when it would … and in fact there are a couple of deployed systems that come sort of close. In, in the military they refer to “human in the loop”, which is basically what the drones are now … the ones that are operating over Afghanistan and Pakistan and Yemen and elsewhere …

HEFFNER: Where there is a human …

KELLER: … where there is a human in the loop. There’s “human on the loop” where the machine has an assignment and can go out and has a measure of autonomy, but its … it has a human watching over its shoulders, so to speak, who can abort the mission at any time.

And then you have “human out of the loop”, which is not the kind of fantasy of Terminator, you know, the robot killer coming back from the future, but is the closest thing that I could find to something that actually exists is a weapon that the Israelis have deployed.

And what it does, it flies around on its own, flies these sort of lazy patterns and it reads radar signals, the signals that come off of radar and it has in its … mmm, mmm … electronic …

HEFFNER: Mind.

KELLER: … memory … (laugh) I almost said “mind” … in its electronic memory a database of friendly radar signals. And when it encounters a radar signal that is not friendly, it presumes that that is probably some anti-aircraft installation that’s hostile and it can immediately transform itself into a dive bomb and strike that weapon … that, that radar installation. You know that’s about as … I think there are a number of people who are critical of, of this tendency in weaponry, who would say “that one already crosses a line.”

But certainly there are things on the drawing boards that you know, take this farther and farther. And it sounds futuristic, but once you get … you know, on that slippery slope, there are a lot of things that kind of keep the tendency going.

The military wants it because it wants to have the best weapons possible, and they particularly like this because it means they’re not putting troops at risk and, and that’s, of course, the commander’s … the highest price an army pays.

There are commercial pressures to keep this thing going because people manufacture them and sell them. There are 70 some countries that have the regular piloted drones that, that we operate. They don’t all make them.

There are some countries that make them and sell them and they’re a good business.

HEFFNER: Has Israel made them and sold them?

KELLER: Yes. I don’t think they have sold this weapon that I was referring to before, but they, but they, they do make and sell drones. And then there’s just the pressure of science.

I mean my youngest daughter who’s now 10 is in a robotics club and it is a, a huge thing in, in schools around the world. Sponsored by Lego and companies like that which provide the kind of ingredients for the first robot makers.

And I went to one of the competitions …the regional competition at the Javits Center in New York with my daughter because her team made the finals, or semi-finals, I guess they were.

And it’s very sweet and it’s …and this is a great thing. I mean these, these kids are learning how and what’s especially sweet about it, I think, is that there are a lot of girls doing it. So its, you know, the, the notion that technology …the future of technology is in the hands of boys is going to be disproven.

But science doesn’t like to say “We’ll only go this far and then we’ll stop discovering stuff”. So, there’s, you know, there’s military, commercial and scientific research pressures for these things to develop all the capabilities they can.

HEFFNER: Isn’t this the place where we just shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, that’s the way it’s going to be. How do you stop that?” … you talk about slippery slope.

KELLER: It’s very hard to stop it, there are a number of organizations, including some of the people who are involved in getting land mines banned … which was … although the United States has not signed on to that ban …

HEFFNER: Indeed.

KELLER: … we, we don’t deploy land mines, however. We, we follow the spirit of the, of the agreement without having actually signed it. To our shame I think.

But some of the people who are involved in, in getting that enacted are on the case of, of fully … what they call “fully autonomous weapons”.

HEFFNER: Are you betting on the success of that effort?

KELLER: No. I’m not. I mean, I mean I hope for the success of that effort, but I … no I would not, I’m not terribly optimistic, but I applaud them for trying. And I will probably applaud them again from time to time in a column.

HEFFNER: Does this make you, as some people have accused you of being a Luddite?

KELLER: (Laugh)

HEFFNER: You mentioned that before we went on the program and, indeed, there was a piece that you had done … I’ll find it here … the one on the twitter …

KELLER: “The Twitter Trap” it was called … yeah.

HEFFNER: Yeah, talking about your daughter and it … that was eight years ago … how’s she done with …

KELLER: No, it was only … it wasn’t eight years ago …

HEFFNER: Wasn’t it?

KELLER: I think three maybe … two or three …

HEFFNER: Was it that?

KELLER: … two or three …

HEFFNER: … well, I’ll find it.

KELLER: … it was … it was right in the closing days of my time as Executive Editor, when I writing a column occasionally for the Magazine …

HEFFNER: … you’re right, it was 2011.

KELLER: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … but you say, “I don’t mean to be a spoil sport and I don’t think I’m a Luddite (laugh) …

KELLER: Right. And just …

HEFFNER: But are you or aren’t you?

KELLER: Well, you know I had eight years as Executive Editor of The Times and the last five or six of those were spent helping to transform The New York Times into a digital news operation.

With considerable success, both in terms of reaching a much broader audience, but also using the technology in innovative ways to gather news and to tell stories.

I mean I walk through … I’m still allowed, even though I’m up on the Opinion Floor now, I still have an “All Access” pass and I do walk through the newsroom from time to time.

And it’s, you know, people still refer to it as the “grey lady” which implies a kind of hidebound aversion to change … small “c” conservative attitude towards everything.

I tell you The New York Times newsroom now is like a laboratory and, and they tried all sorts of innovative things with interactive graphics and with audio and with data … number crunching as a way of, of supplying content for stories.

And I think that’s a good thing. So no, I don’t think I’m a Luddite. I think I have … I’ve certainly embraced the fact that we … that my business now lives in a digital world, even though that’s sometimes unsettling.

But, I guess I would say I recoil a little bit from people who tend to treat technology as a dogma or a religion. It’s a tool … an extremely useful tool that can be used for good things and can be used for bad things.

And, and there is something of a tendency among, you know, sort of young people who have incorporated so much of the social media and the new world into their lives to say, you know, “If you’re not with it, you’re not cool, you’re, you’re backwards, you’re a Luddite, or a techno-phobe”.

You know I use social media, my children use social media, much more than I do, but, you know, throughout history new technologies have always been absorbed at a cost.

I said in that column that, you know, my father who was an MIT chemical engineer and a, a slide rule generation guy … used to complain that, that since everybody had pocket calculators, nobody knew how to do arithmetic any more. And he was kind of right. A lot of those math skills, you know, have atrophied as we depend on the new technology.

HEFFNER: What then, what skills do you think are going to go “by the board”? Maybe, indeed, have gone by the board in terms of our new technology? Skills or human approaches to …

KELLER: Well, some of … some of both. I mean, you know, I find … it’s just … in the category of skills, I used to know how to drive myself around Los Angeles. I went to school not far from there (laugh). Now when I go to Los Angeles, I rent a car with a GPS system and the machine tells me when to turn right and when to turn left. And I’ve completely lost my sense of direction in, in a city that I once, you know thought that I knew. There’s, there’s a lot of that sort of thing.

The part of the column that produced the, the loudest kind of moans of indignation from the, from the true believers … I’m using loaded language, I know …

HEFFNER: Indeed.

KELLER: But I’m a columnist, so I guess I’m allowed to. But the, the loudest complaints came when, when I talked about social media. And I said a couple things about social media.

First of all that at least some … the very kind of quick response … Twitter … in particular … which is designed for, you know, wise-cracking exchanges and sharing links to other things … is not a great place to have a discussion.

The title of the column came from a little experiment that I conducted where I tweeted … Twitter makes you stupid … discuss.

And everybody reacted to the “Twitter makes you stupid”, but not to …

HEFFNER: But not …

KELLER: … to the “discuss”. (Laugh) And in fact it is not a very good place to have a civil discussion. It’s good for other things, it’s just not very good for that.

I worry, you know, to some extent that if all of your social life exists online, you miss something. If, if your idea of a friend is somebody that you “friended” on Facebook, you maybe missing out on the kind of experience that comes from having friends that you go out for coffee with and, and, you know, share your secrets with … not in a way that’s been written down or, or photoed … photographed and posted … but that just sort of emerges from, from real human contact. I worry a bit about that.

I’m not apocalyptic about that we’re going to lose our ability to love, but, but I worry that it is a … that something may be lost.

HEFFNER: But doesn’t that fit in to your first concern about drones that are self-driven? Isn’t there a parallel, isn’t there a similarity there?

KELLER: Yeah, there’s … you know, they’re both examples of the fact that, that these are tools and you … tools are to be used and tools should be controlled. And when the tools begin to control you … that’s a little scary.

HEFFNER: And you think we have reason to be scared?

KELLER: I think we have reason to be anxious, let’s say … I’m, I’m somewhere on the continuum between a little nervous and, and panicked. I’m closer to the “a little nervous”.

HEFFNER: Well, I’m much older than you … so that I’m very nervous …

KELLER: So you can panic (laugh) …

HEFFNER: … and I’m panicked about them.

KELLER: I’m reassured by the fact that I have kids who use social media as a kind of mainstay of their social lives. The older one does, anyway. The younger one’s still 10 and she doesn’t do much … we don’t let her do that much. But, but my daughters are still quite wonderful … nearly perfect.

HEFFNER: That’s great. And I’m sure when they hear that they’ll not think of you as …

KELLER: (Laugh)

HEFFNER: … “there goes Dad again”.

KELLER: (laugh)

HEFFNER: You know there were so many things I said at the beginning that I wanted to ask you about having to do with the press and other things.

One had to do with a, a piece you wrote … “All the Aggregation That’s Fit to Aggregate”.

KELLER: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: And that does seem to me … it seemed to me that it was such an important thing to worry about.

KELLER: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: But I sort of find it reflected in the “Grey Lady” herself with the emphasis so much now on opinion. And aggregating opinions …

KELLER: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … and publishing them.

KELLER: Well, we all, all aggregate … you know, if you use the term broadly and, and always have. I mean a newspaper story is an aggregation of facts and opinions that you didn’t originate or invent. You collected from other people …

HEFFNER: But you went out to collect them.

KELLER: You went out to collect them and you usually attributed the information to the, you know, to the, to the experts or individuals that you, that you interviewed and, and to the documents that you cited.

But … but … so aggregation, per se, is not a … is not evil.

HEFFNER: What is?

KELLER: Well … I have two, two things that I would say about aggregation which is, which is … you know, you’re right that The New York Times does a lot more of the kind a, the kind of aggregating that is not just going out and interviewing people and putting their quotes into a newspaper article.

We post … people’s comments after our articles and opinion pieces and, and columns … sometimes hundreds of them. We have a blog called “The Lead” which is very heavily aggregation and what it serves to do on, on occasions when we don’t have a reporter somewhere is to kind of sort through what other media have said or what individual, sort of civilians, tweeting and posting things to You Tube have said.

It, it’s first great accomplishment, I think, was during the 2009 upheavals in Iran when I was there for part of that and then they kicked all the foreign reporters out. And our aggregator blog “The Lead” put together information coming, mostly thorough social media and, and occasionally from other journalists who had found other ways to gather information and assembled it all and tried to make sense of it.

So we aggregate all the time. The, the two points that I try to make about aggregation are … first of all it’s no substitute for going there. And going there is expensive, sometimes risky, it’s often inconvenient. But going and actually bearing witness is, is not something that you can replace with just aggregating the opinion of others.

And the second thing is, there’s a line between sighting … recommending that readers go look at somebody else’s work and just stealing it. And some of the aggregators …

HEFFNER: Aggregators …

KELLER: … some of the aggregators published so much of other people’s work and at the end they may put a link, but, by the time you’re done, you’re read so much of somebody else’s work that you have no need to actually go there and maybe generate the few cents of income that your visit would, would generate through … you know, by, by clicking on an ad.

I mean it costs money to, to do the “going there” and bearing witness.

HEFFNER: But I don’t think it’s only a matter of dollars that you’re concerned about … is it?

KELLER: No, I think it’s … there’s, there’s an ethical question here, too. You know, we’re still trying to figure out where that line is. I mean the latest case is, is this new television software that promises to … if you pay them a fee, they will fish out of the airwaves all of the broadcast signals from the networks and give you, give you their stuff … live, if you want, or stored if you want on your cell phone.

Needless to say the TV producers are up in arms and, and on this one, my hearts are with them. Not that I particularly love everything that, that appears on television. But it’s hard, expensive stuff to produce. And, and it’s hard for me to justify swiping it and re-selling it, you know, with no reimbursement to the people who produced it.

HEFFNER: You know, turning to something very, very different … I told you before we began our program that my wife insisted, knowing who was going to be my guest today, that I’ve got to ask you about this. This, this is a quote from you from somewhere because I didn’t identify it as I wrote it down … “We have sometimes”, talking about the press in general, “we have sometimes been too even-handed, giving equal time to arguments that fail a simple fact-check”. So that …

KELLER: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … The New York Times, for instance, will report something outrageous …

KELLER: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … that someone has said and as I look at it, I’m going to be 88 … for 80 of those years I’ve been reading The New York Times …

KELLER: Mmmm.

HEFFNER: … and I, by and large … believe what I read in The New York Times or at least I think that old symbol up at the top “All the News That’s Fit to Print” means it wouldn’t be there if it weren’t fit to print.

KELLER: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: What’s your fix on printing a statement to charge an item that you know ….

KELLER: Yeah. When I wrote that I didn’t have in mind a particular offense. It’s more of a chronic problem.

HEFFNER: Makes it worse.

KELLER: It, it does. I should say up front that I believe in trying to be even-handed. I, I … you know, there is a school of thought that journalists should just abandon any pretense to objectivity …

HEFFNER: Right.

KELLER: … declare your politics and your ideology and all your views up front. I think that’s a mistake. I, I mean I know that it’s part of the culture of some places. I have friends who work for The Guardian … in fact I have a wife who works for The Guardian … the English paper …and their culture is much more kind of overtly partisan.

But ours is not and I think there’s a real advantage to withholding your opinion. Partly because once you’ve spoken it, you feel some sort of impulse to defend it. And that makes you automatically less open-minded to, to the other point of view.

So, I, I am a believer in trying to be fair and balanced in presenting the news. But, you know, at …

HEFFNER: Presenting the news ….

KELLER: Yes.

HEFFNER: … the news or the views?

KELLER: Presenting the, the news … well, the news is … often consists of views. I mean if you’re writing about the politics of the budget debate, you know, you want to hear from the Republicans and the Democrats. Maybe nothing happened. Maybe the news is nothing but warring views.

But, you know, for a long time my paper, everybody’s paper treated climate science as if it were a theory … the, the notion that there’s global warming and that human conduct contributes to it.

And I think probably out of an excess of … a sorted of distorted sense of fair play … well beyond the point when the consensus of science was clear, we all sort of continued to tip our hats to the, to the denialist view. We don’t really do that any more, certainly The Times doesn’t … I don’t speak for, for the entire business.

But my sense as a reader is that it has now become … nobody now feels obliged when writing about the latest dispute over “cap and trade” or carbon taxing or whatever … to pretend that it’s an unresolved question … whether or not the climate is changing.

I’m sure there are lots of other things out there, you know, where we are still leaning a little too hard on the, on the tradition of even-handedness and, and probably giving one side more than it’s due.

HEFFNER: You see I didn’t mean even-handedness, because I’d certainly go along with that. But I meant where you know in, in this quote that fail a simply fact check.

KELLER: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: But this is for us to continue if you’re willing to stay here and do a second program, because believe it or not, we’ve come to the end …

KELLER: I’m happy to stay.

HEFFNER: … of our time here. Good.

KELLER: Yeah.

HEFFNER: And thank you so much for joining me today, Bill Keller and we’ll come back in about five minutes … meaning next week.

KELLER: (laughter) Okay.

HEFFNER: 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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