Sunday, February 27, 2005

Being Bill Keller-vich

That wild and wacky Bill Keller. Jack Shafer reported a strange incident with the Keller man this week in Slate. The Columbia Spectator's Amanda Erickson reported on one event Shafer notes:

Keller also sees “blogging,” or online writing that blurs news and commentary, as a mixed blessing. While he celebrated the blogger’s ability to uncover breaking news, he noted that a blog’s inherent bias might be detrimental to the reader. “A blog is still a view of the world through a pinhole,” he said, noting that it can sometimes fall as low as being a “one man circle jerk.”

Too much information? Is Kellerino longing for some activities of his adolescent past or is he the pinhole?

A blogger's inherent bias? Like The Times's institutional bias which leads them to twist and turn in the wind as they try to keep pace with shifting policies of the state department, any state department of any administration?

Ever hear the story of The Times reporter almost stripped of his Pulitzer?

Fade in: 2003. The now deceased Walter Durnaty won an award for his coverage of the Soviet Union in 1932. Now we know he lied. (His reporting was characterized as "dull and largely uncritical reciatations of Soviet sources" -- substitute "administration" for "Soviet" and you've just described the 2002 and 2003 articles by Judith Miller.)

The Times weak ass defense is that it should have been caught in real time. But when do they catch anything in real time?

And let's note CJR on this topic (this is CJR proper):

Researchers who have investigated Duranty's career have found that certain editors at The New York Times did have doubts about his coverage of the Soviet Union, but never acted to recall him. Times editors were aware of famine reports in other newspapers, and even ran editorials and stories contrary to Duranty's coverage in the Times. Those who wish to see Duranty's Pulitzer revoked point to a 1931 State Department memo from the American ambassador to Germany on a meeting he had with Duranty in which Duranty supposedly said that by agreement between the Times and the Soviet government, all his dispatches reflected the Soviets' official position. Though the report appears genuine, it's hard to know how much weight to give it given the lack of other supporting evidence and the tone of the Times coverage. Certainly Duranty's dispatches were contorted to get past the censors, but the Times headlines on his stories were often harsher in tone than the articles under them. The paper had a long record of anti-Soviet coverage and took a much harder editorial line against the Soviets than Duranty did, leading to a somewhat inconsistent picture during Duranty's tenure.

Maybe you know the story of the Bay of Pigs? How The Nation reported on the story in advance something that The Times could have done as well; however, a request by that administration led them to kill the story:

Still, a journalistic price was paid: The paper's deference to power led to debacles like the Bay of Pigs affair in 1961. (Tad Szulc's story about the impending invasion, which had already been reported in The Nation, was set to run on the front page, but the publisher, Orvil Dryfoos, neutered it; John F. Kennedy himself later reproached the Times for not printing all the relevant facts.)

Or maybe you never heard the tale of how The Times got scooped by The Washington Post on the Watergate story? John L. Hess's My Times: A Memoir of Dissent reveals that reliance on official sources led The Times to believe that there was no there there. We won't spoon feed you here because Hess's book is too important. If you haven't read it, you need to. There's a

Maybe you missed the report in Extra! about The Times sitting on and then killing the story about what was under the Bully Boy's jacket in that first debate? From Dave Lindorff's "The Emperor's New Hump:"

While the thrust of this article was a justification for the Times' decision to run the controversial missing-explosives story a week ahead of the election, executive editor Bill Keller added a comment about the seemingly hypothetical issue of running a damaging story about a candidate as close as two days ahead of the voting:

I can’t say categorically you should not publish an article damaging to a candidate in the last days before an election. . . . If you learned a day or two before the election that a candidate had lied about some essential qualification for the job -- his health or criminal record -- and there's no real doubt and you've given the candidate a chance to respond and the response doesn't cast doubt on the story, do you publish it? Yes. Voters certainly have a right to know that.

Oddly, though, despite Keller's having taken such a position, the Times apparently chose not to run the Nelson pictures story on the grounds of proximity to Election Day. Even more oddly, despite the fact that the Times had thoroughly researched and reported Nelson’s story before deciding not to run it -- even after the story had run in both Salon and Mother Jones -- the Times still ducked (and continues to duck) the whole bulge story itself, ignoring an important issue that it knew to be factually substantiated.

Keller says one thing for public consumption but The Timid remains timid regardless of Keller's public remarks.

The point of all of this is that this is nothing new. This is ingrained in the paper and has always been. Keller wants to take on bloggers fine. But Keller needs to know that whether he tells the truth about the paper of non-record, the truth is known.

The Times curries favor with the people in power, worships at the throne of official sources. And what do they have to show for it? Oh, they might have a "scoop" that's about an official report to be released later that day. Wowie.

The Times must be so proud. We're talking about a paper that has institutionally decided time and again that rather inform readers, they want to curry favor. Gore Vidal has written of the paper being the house organ for the power elite and he's quite right.

The Nation scooped The Times in 1961 and it did so again last year when the strong reporting of Naomi Klein's (regarding the double life of James Baker) was never an issue raised in the pages of The Times. They wouldn't do so because it was embarrassing to their kind of people.

From Klein's "Carlye Covers Up" (an update on "James Baker's Double Life"):

The story--which made front-page news around the world--vanished almost as soon as it had appeared in the press at home. The New York Times has not printed a word about Baker's conflict, despite the fact that when Baker was first appointed envoy, it published an editorial calling on him to resign from Carlyle in order to "perform honorably in his new public job."

That's The New York Timid -- never write about anything embarrassing unless forced to do so by competiting daily papers.

Some will argue that they printed embarrassing stories on the Bush administration. Yes, they did. Often with sourcing from the CIA. Which may be why Porter Goss instituted his ideological purge of the CIA? It certainly the reason Keller can offer his opinion that instead of mainstream media, The Times should be called part of the "elite media."

The Times has historically engaged and interacted with the CIA. We won't argue it's out of some ideological goal, we'll just note that it has to do with the paper's idea of "class" and the desire for like minded to mix.

This isn't news to anyone who's read a few essays by Gore Vidal.

But there's some apparent refusal to tie it all together and to note that historically the paper has done an incredibly poor job of informing of any controversy. This isn't even about Keller, it's about an institutional problem at The Times. A quality ingrained that will apparently not go away.

To be the paper of record, The Times has to adhere to certain guidelines about what they inform and what they conceal. As an in house organ, the paper may be amazing. As a newspaper, The Timid fails miserably and repeatedly.

If there's a circle jerk going on outside of Keller's bedroom, basement playroom, latent desires or nostalgic memories, it may be what's going on at his paper.

Keller told Shafer (in an e-mail):

Some journalists get into this work to be players, to right wrongs, to change the world. The best investigative reporters have at least a streak of that. Most journalists, I think, like being on the sidelines, witnessing, analyzing, but a little detached, neither on the field nor sitting with the fans of either team. I've always been in the second category. I like the sidelines just fine. But when the fight is over the role and future of journalism itself, the sidelines are a pretty untenable position. So I give the occasional speech, I try to respond to press critics whose minds are at least ajar, I answer as much mail as I can, I make myself available to the Public Editor. . . .

Oh little Billy Keller, you're still very much a part of the sidelines no matter how long your self-serving list is (all of which falls under the duties of being executive editor of The Times).

But you don't try to answer as much mail as you can judging by the forwards we're looking at from our readers. If someone praises reporting, you dash off a quick note. If someone questions reporting, you are silent on the sidelines. You certainly do like the sidelines and no, there's no confusing your work in the past with that of an investigative journalist. (A term that seems not only to describe you but also seems distasteful to you.)

Third Estate Sunday Review reader Marci e-mailed this CJR Daily story on Jeff Jarvis's My Online Dinner With Keller:

I regard the blogosphere as both a treasury from which we draw ideas and information, and a stimulating bull session where our work lives on. It's only natural that in the blogosphere, a medium with a very low threshold, you find a lot of self-indulgent nonsense, misinformation, propaganda and paranoia. But I have an equally long and more unforgiving list of complaints about the more traditional media. My quarrel with the blog world, to the extent I have one, is really with the zealots -- the people whose pose is revolutionary, whose articles of faith are that All Information Must Be Free (as if we should stop paying Dexter Filkins to risk his life in Iraq) and that Editing Is Evil (abolish those fact-checking departments and copy desks and let the Truth emerge organically from the collision of blogs) and so on. My anxiety about the blog world is not that it will put us out of business but that it contributes to an erosion of middle ground, that it accelerates a general polarization of the nation into people, right and left, who are ardently convinced and not very interested in exposing themselves to facts or ideas that contradict their prejudices.

After we got over our shock that CJR Daily would allow a known lie in print, we decided maybe CJR Daily just doesn't know. ". . . Editing Is Evil (abolish those fact-checking departments and copy desks . . ." Let's be clear here, The Times doesn't have a fact-checking depeartment. That responsibility falls onto the editor of that department. (As numerous calls to The Times from Third Estate Sunday Review has demonstrated.)

So here we are inside William Keller's head, Being Bill Keller-vich, and we're finding a refusal to face the truth, a tendency for public statements that aren't necessarily reflected in the actual print version of the paper, an abnormal interest in circle-jerks, and a tendency to obfuscate reality. It's a dark place. We'd love to tell you about it's inner workings but honestly it's such a mess that we'd need to do some serious spring cleaning before we could even seriously assess the workings.
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