Bill Keller

The Marshall Project

Air Date: July 5, 2014

Former New York Times journalist Bill Keller discusses his new venture.


I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. When he last joined this program, Bill Keller was described as a man for all times, a testament to his many high ranking editing and reporting roles within The New York Times.

Now you can add to his distinguished journalism career, a new title Internet Startup Pioneer. A former Executive Editor and Op-Ed Columnist at The Times, today Bill Keller is Editor-in-Chief of The Marshall Project, a new website that promises to be a dynamic digital hub for information and debate on the legal and corrections system.

Keller’s non-profit, beat specific outlet is open about its ultimate goal … to help make criminal justice reform an important part of the national debate by the 2016 Presidential campaign.

I want to begin by asking Bill Keller how he and his colleagues at The Marshall Project plan to do this, what specific issues within the justice system they want to awaken within the public consciousness and which they hope the country is most prepared to address, by the next Presidential inauguration. Bill?

KELLER: Well, there are essentially two parts to the, to the venture. There’s an investigative reporting function … we’ll have a, a newsroom of about 20 people including reporters, editors, digital experts … and we will try on a regular basis to deliver some high impact reporting on one aspect or another of the criminal justice system. I expect largely focused on problems in the system.

But, we, you know, also want to highlight reforms that have been proven successful along the way.

The other part of it is … our, our aim is to create an online hub of daily analysis, news, debate for people … starting with people who are already interested in the criminal justice system. Everything from advocates to policy makers to journalists who cover these issues, to people in the system itself.

But then, through them and through social media to, to reach out to a much broader audience.

HEFFNER: Do you think it’s essential for these endeavors to be non-profit in nature?

KELLER: I don’t know that it’s essential, but, you know, some of them I think probably will find commercial, their commercial footing.

Particularly ones that are dealing with issues … there not strictly public service, but have a … you know, a, a broader entertainment value, or, you know, it’s just a popular following. I think the … the business model that we’re following, the, the philanthropy supported model works particularly well for issues that, you know, have a kind of public policy aspect to them and aren’t inherently gripping … although I think we can make the criminal justice system pretty gripping.

HEFFNER: How so?

KELLER: Well, we have a criminal justice system that incarcerates more people than any other nation on earth. One possible exception is North Korea where we don’t really know. We have 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prison inmates. The system fails badly at, at the fundamental obligation to protect public safety, because we put people in prison and then, when they’re finally finished their terms we let them out with no skills, no preparation for the real world.

These are essentially policy and institutional issues, but they all involve people. And what, what really captures people in online journalism, I think, is, is storytelling with an emotional content. And it’s quite easy in the criminal justice system to put, to put human faces on the problem. Not just prisoners and people caught up in the system as the accused, but the victims, the, the advocates of reform. There’s a lot of drama and human interest in the criminal justice system. And I think, I think it should be possible to raise public awareness and raise a sense of urgency, which is our aim.

HEFFNER: And is there also a certain civic impulse that will charge or define your endeavor at The Marshall Project …


HEFFNER: … compared to traditional mainstream outlets?

KELLER: Abso … well we’re going to use the tools of mainstream journalism in the sense that, you know, we’re going to write based on the facts, not … we’re not going to write polemics. We’re not an advocacy group. But we start with a sense of mission, a sense that, that the system … there’s an emerging consensus … Right and Left … that the system now does not serve the country well.

That it … not just that it’s … in many ways inhumane … but that it fails to protect public safety. Ahhh, it’s up to policymakers and advocates to, to decide how to change the system. But journalism can create the context for that by making people aware of just how bad things are and highlighting reforms that work.

HEFFNER: And to what extent do you think the American public is aware of this vast prison industrial complex that pervades.

KELLER: Well, I’m … they’re not as aware as they should be. I think, you know, there is a growing awareness of it … partly because of journalists and advocates who focus some attention and partly, frankly, because what used to be the, the purview of the sort of Liberals and, you know, the Democratic Party has been, in recent years, embraced much more by the Right and Republican Party.

So you now have fiscal Conservatives who worry about the, the costs of incarcerating so many people. You have evangelical Conservatives who worry about the inhumanity of solitary confinement and brutality and rape in prisons.

You have … particularly now … the growth of Libertarian Conservatives who see the criminal justice system as another example of, you know, oppressive government. So that’s the … what used to be a kind of major public response on these issues, that is … tough on crime, law and order … has begun to, to soften and become more complicated as, as people, as this begins to seep into the public awareness.

HEFFNER: And as it begins to seep into the public awareness, if you think about the most viable political platform … realistically … what do you think it is? It is the Democrats, Republicans, as you anticipate this upcoming campaign, both the mid-term election and subsequently the Presidential election, how do you think this will be constituted in a political form?

KELLER: Well, you know Neil Barsky who’s the, the founder of The Marshall Project, is a former Wall Street Journal journalist and a former hedge fund manager, likes to say that, you know, Presidential candidates are … feel obliged to have a well thought-out agenda for the economy. They’re obliged to have a well thought-out agenda for aspects of foreign policy … how to handle Iran’s nuclear program, for example. But they’ve never really been called upon to have an agenda on the criminal justice system short of being … promising to be tough on law and order.

And, and, you know, he’s framed as, as one kind of benchmark … whether in the 2016 Presidential campaign … Presidents … serious Presidential candidates really feel that these are issues that they need to talk about.

I think there’s, there is some area of consensus as to what should be done. There’s a focus on risk assessment, both at the going in end and the coming out end, which is, which is basically an attempt to make a, a really smart judgment as to whether somebody who’s accused of a crime or somebody who’s eligible for parole represents a threat to society. What, what are the odds that this person, based on personal history and based on the data we have, whether this person is going to commit another crime.

And to make judgments, you know, factor that into, into the judgment as to whether or not somebody gets released from prison or whether they end up being sentenced to prison in the first place.

There’s considerable consensus on … that we need to do a much better job of re-entry once people have gotten out of prison. We need to encourage the durability of their family ties, because people who get out of prison and, and are welcomed by an intact family are much more likely to be good citizens and taxpayers than those who are completely on their own and just sort of dumped on the sidewalk.

There’s, I think, a fair amount of consensus about some aspects of what goes on in prisons. Support for more skills training, at least, if not actual college education. Less use of solitary confinement which tends to … if you’re not already suffering mental illness when you go into prison, enough exposure to, you know, the four walls of the solitary cell may very well make you mentally ill.

So there, there, there’s common ground between Right and Left and then there are issues, you know, where they differ and not all of the fiscal Conservatives, who oppose the high cost of incarcerating so many people are willing to pay the high cost of alternatives to prison. So there’s, there’s a lot to debate. But just having that debate would be a significant advance.

HEFFNER: How do you get people who don’t want to pay attention to prison, jail, all the issues surrounding incarceration … how do you get their attention, if they just simply don’t want to pay attention to it?

KELLER: Well, it, it … that’s one of the sort of classic dilemma’s of journalism. I mean we … serious newspapers and broadcast outlets do a lot of coverage of issues that, you know, are not on, on the surface pleasant to read about or, or to watch. Ahem, but there are different ways to do it. You can, you can turn a policy issue into a human interest story and, and with the right writing and the right video and the right audio, you can make those stories engaging.

It, it … you know, we … we don’t not write about subjects just because people don’t want to read about them. Although, you know, one thing that’s happened in the, in the last ten years or so, while journalism has been going through it’s great economic trauma is that newspapers have tended to cut back on coverage of these kinds of issues.

There are a number of papers that used to have teams of people who did investigative reporting on prisons, on court cases, on police behavior. And, you know, I think to some extent when publishers had to, and editors had to downsize their newsrooms, the factor that you raised was somewhere in their minds. You know, the demographic that buys newspapers doesn’t necessarily doesn’t want to read about the demographic that gets into trouble with the law.

But the combination of good story telling and underscoring the fact that this is a matter of interest to you, to your public safety … I, I think you can get those audiences.

HEFFNER: I know you highlight that the project is non-advocacy in nature. But could you link your reporting to better statistics, vital statistics in this arena in certain communities and attempt really to prove to people that greater awareness will foster great education, greater potential for the corrections system?

KELLER: Sure, that’s absolutely what we intend to do. In fact, one of the things that we’ve already enlisted as part of this project is we have a young woman who’s going to write, on a regular basis, just about the social science, the statistics, the data on criminal justice. Both about interesting research and there’s a mountain of research under way in this country on the subject as states kind of grapple with the high cost of prison.

So she will be writing about research that has been overlooked or underplayed … and she’ll also be looking at the ways that research and data are used and mis-used in the public debate by advocates or by the news media, or misunderstood. And, yes, I think that, you know, we’re not prescribing, you know, particular solutions to these problems, but I think we can do a lot to let communities know what’s going on.

HEFFNER: Given the digital divide that still exists in this country, how are you going to get the outcomes and the dissemination of this information to underserved communities, were these questions might even be more relevant than to folks who have access to the Internet?

KELLER: Well, that’s … you could ask the same question about … just about any, any subject. I mean that, sadly, it’s not likely to be the underserved communities who are going to decide the policies ultimately. But they do vote, they do organize in their communities. In addition to … I mean the digital divide is, is, I think, gradually becoming less acute as broadband access reaches more and more of the population.

But we’re also going to use a technique that’s been adopted quite successfully by ProPublica, and that’s another non-profit investigative news organization.

Which is partnering with more traditional news outlets, with newspapers, magazines, television, radio and, and that’ll certainly be a way of reaching a broader audience.

HEFFNER: You wrote in your farewell Times Op-Ed “Nearly half of those released are returned to prison within three years for committing new crimes. Clearly we’re not doing a good job of correcting.”

When do you think Americans will become more concerned with the fact that in the correction process there’s no correcting occurring? In incarceration we don’t have the corrections and rehabilitation that is so sorely needed”.

KELLER: You know, I don’t know. It’s a … it’s a high hurdle to get over. I mean, you know, the Governor of New York discovered this year just how high it is to get over. Governor Cuomo proposed a quite small investment of, of state money to introduce college education to the state … into some of the prisons in the state system.

No sooner had he made his proposal than a lot of law makers, mostly Republicans, but some Democrats, too … piled on and howled with outrage that “How can you be offering college diplomas to criminals, when our own kids have to skimp and save and get second mortgages on the family house to, to put themselves through college?” And the Governor retreated. He’s now trying to get private money to, to pick up the slack from, from his effort.

But, you know, it’s a reminder that even in a relatively liberal state like New York, selling rehabilitation is, is not easy. But, you know, as a journalist I believe that over time and well done, journalism can move the conventional wisdom.

HEFFNER: Are you going to try to have a Marshall Project Presidential debate 2016?

KELLER: (Laugh) I hadn’t thought about that, but I’ll take that under advisement.

HEFFNER: Well, I ask because you’re really attempting to bring these issues to the fore …


HEFFNER: … and there are only so many canned responses you can get from public officials, so in your reporting process, compared to traditional reporting of The New York Times or other publications, how are you going to try to really deeply find the answers?

KELLER: Well, I think most reporting on the criminal justice system doesn’t require dependence on the public information officers of the corrections systems. Although, actually, you know, for reporters one of the big problems in covering these issues is access.

States, for the most part, do not give much access to outside monitors of any kind including journalists, to the prison system. And that is an issue that we will be fighting aggressively, including in the courts if need be. Because we believe there should be much greater access.

So that’s … but, but you, you don’t have to be allowed the free run of prisons to write about the conditions in the prisons. You have former inmates, you have defense counsel as sources. And it’s not just about what goes on in, in prisons. It’s … a lot of it is what goes on before and after.

You know, the, the … one of the issues I would like to look at is pre-trial detention. I mean large numbers of people who are accused of crime can’t afford the high price of the …and rising cost of bail. So they end up languishing in jail before they’ve had a trial. They lose their jobs, their families often fall apart. This is before they’ve been convicted of anything.

We’d like to look at the, the prevalence of plea bargains. And most people I think would be surprised to know that upwards of 95% of the people who are in prison never had a trial. They were … they all cut deals with the prosecution because there is a huge pressure in the system not to slow things down. You can take your chances on, you know, a ten year sentence or you can take a year, plead guilty and, and avoid that, that risk.

I read a statistic recently that of the prisoners who were exonerated last year in 2013 … 17% of them had not gone to trial, they just accepted a plea, even though they were … they have now been … their innocence has now been established. The pressure to cut a deal is so intense that 17% of those people who were found innocent just didn’t bother to fight. Those, those are issues you can write about without being dependent on anybody’s public relations apparatus.

HEFFNER: Well, what about the systemic racial bias that you rightly allege and, and comment on in your mission statement. How do you get at that issue and are you going to use New York City and the new Mayoral administration as a laboratory in how the new Mayor Bill de Blasio responds to some of these issues.

KELLER: We’ll certainly keep an eye on, on New York City because we’re here and because you have a new Mayor who’s, who I think will be held to account. They, they brought a new Chief with a, a reformist reputation in to run the Rikers Island, which is the city’s main jail. So we will watch that. We don’t want to become too New York-centric. There are … there is no one criminal justice system in America, it’s mostly at the state level, so there are 50 of them, and then when you get down to, you know, individual counties and cities, there’s countless places to look for a sort of microcosm of what’s happening in the criminal justice system.

So we will, we will certainly keep an eye on New York, but we’ll be looking at a lot of other places as well.

As far as the race issue, I mean you’re right. 60% of people incarcerated in America are either Black or Latino. And that’s, you know, obviously way out of proportion to their representation in, in the, in the larger populace.

And that may, in all honesty, be a factor … at least a subconscious factor that enters into the decision to not report so much on this subject. You know this is, these are … you know minorities are often in poor communities who probably don’t subscribe to a newspaper and I imagine some editors in the back of their mind don’t think of this as a … as their demographic. But we do, we think of that as very much a part of the story.

HEFFNER: How do you get at whether or not prosecutions and inadequate counsel and all these negative aspects of the criminal justice system are racially motivated? How are you going to try to get at that question? Because that’s on people’s minds today.

KELLER: Well, you know, one book that has, has been … become a kind of bible for the more liberal reformists is Michelle Alexander’s book called The New Jim Crow, which … where, in which she writes eloquently and passionately about the racialization of the American justice system. And it’s, it’s an undeniable truth … just from looking at the, at the data.

Of course, the flip side of that is the victims of crime are disproportionately minorities and in low income communities. So it’s not, you know … my guess is and I’ve seen some data to support this, that if you poll the residents of, of underprivileged communities, you will not find them a lot more sympathetic to criminal suspects than people in the White suburbs.

So, it’s, it’s important to keep in mind that while this is a … the outcomes of the criminal justice system are demonstrably disproportionate … the impacts fall disproportionally on minorities, it … the picture is complicated, more complicated than that.

HEFFNER: Are you going to relay any more uplifting stories. Because some of these young men and women who lacked access to college … now they may have that in the form of a prison education, do you anticipate sharing some of those stories as well?

KELLER: Of course, of course. And there are a number of philanthropic groups that have … and a growing number of them that actually focus on things like providing exposure to education in prison and helping keep families together. There’s a place called the Osborne Foundation that does a lot great work. Much of it in New York, keeping family ties going while inmates are in, in jail or prison.

Lobbying for more online communication and more visitation and just for paying attention to, to those who are left behind so that when inmates get out, they have a chance of re-uniting with the supported family, getting a job. Of course, we want to tell the success stories.

But there’s often more to learn from the success story than from a report on failure.

HEFFNER: And as we conclude here, what do you anticipate … we talked before about the best or most viable political platform. What do you anticipate the Presidential candidates will say about this issue from the outset and how do you hope to perhaps transform what they say over the course of the campaign?

KELLER: I, I would be quite happy if, at a minimum, they were say … the fact that we incarcerate so many people is a scandal, it’s a waste of money and a waste of human potential … that we need better alternatives to prison for those who are caught up … who commit crimes. That we need better rehabilitation efforts inside prison so the recidivism rate goes down. We need to shift money away from the … you know it costs as much to, to keep somebody in prison for a year as it does to send them to Stanford. We need to shift some of that money to efforts at alternatives, re-entry, rehabilitation.

HEFFNER: Thank you so much for joining us today.

KELLER: Glad to be here.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next week for a thoughtful excursion into the world of idea. Until then, keep an open mind.

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