15 August 2006

Keller Bashing Returns

When the Times reported on Dec. 15, 2005, that George W. Bush had authorized a plan for warrantless spying on American citizens, we -- and a lot of other people -- noticed a circumspect little sentence deep in the story. "After meeting with senior administration officials to hear their concerns," James Risen and Eric Lichtblau wrote, "the newspaper delayed publication for a year to conduct additional reporting."

Did a year mean "365 days", or did it mean "about 365 days"? And if it was the latter, did it mean that the Times knew about the warrantless wiretapping before the presidential election in November 2004? We put that question to Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis at the time, but she never answered it. The Times' public editor, Byron Calame, pursued the question with the Times' executive editor, Bill Keller, but he declined to comment, too.

To his credit, Calame never gave up. Troubled by what seemed to be shifting language about the delay -- the initial story and a statement issued over Keller's name said the paper had held the story for "a year," but Keller later seemed to acknowledge implicitly that the delay had been longer -- Calame kept asking for details, and Keller has now provided them: Drafts of the article were written weeks before the presidential election, Keller says, and "the climactic discussion about whether to publish was right on the eve of the election."

Why was the story held? That's a little hard to decipher. Keller has said that he can't get into too much detail without exposing anonymous sources -- and that the administration had assured the Times initially that everyone thought the program was legal. Now, as Calame reports, Keller is saying that the paper's sources before the election weren't "'well-placed and credible' enough to convince him that questions about the program's legality and oversight were serious enough to make it 'responsible to publish.'"

Keller also says that there was a matter of fairness involved -- a point with which Calame agrees. "Candidates affected by a negative article deserve to have time -- several days to a week -- to get their response disseminated before voters head to the polls," Calame says.

We're not so sure about that one. Maybe you can make that argument about some personal scandal that's only remotely related to the candidate's fitness for office. But when the subject of the story is the way in which a candidate -- no, a president -- has turned his back on the Constitution and abused his office, when the story is about a president who has authorized even arguably illegal spying on the very voters he's asking to reelect him, it seems to us that the fairness at issue is the fairness owed to the readers.

Americans went to the polls in November 2004 not knowing that the president they'd be reelecting was spying on some of them. They went to the polls in November not knowing that the president's men had outed a CIA agent for political gain. New York Times reporters knew better on both counts. Would the outcome of the election have been any different if the Times' reporters had reported what they knew? We don't know; as Keller has said, the political reaction to the wiretapping news has been so mixed that it's possible the story would have helped Bush rather than hurt him.

But that's not the call Keller and his colleagues had to make on the "eve of the election." What they had to decide then was whether their readers should be allowed to know what they did in time to do something about it. They decided that the answer was no.

(Emphasis added; the rest is here.)

Or maybe everything makes sense from a historical, rearward-looking perspective. To wit:

Like maybe the issue of sources being resolved by Risen's book, with the story that should have run in the Times, on the eve of being published with the Times' story for the world to run with. That is, the whole damn world was about to scoop the Times -- with the Times' own story.

But just as a reminder: what else does one expect from Pinch and Keller except mendacity?

[Avoided at this point: How modern male leaders are so unmanly and the early feminists maybe, while not actually interested in turning women into men were trying to make women more manly in a good way -- in regard to what can be called a manly code of honor (which really should transcend honor.

[But that's an involved discussion for another day....

[Suffice to say for now that Pinch and Keller are worms, not unlike most of our leaders....]

And look: a piece on Pinch and the future of the Times here. Overlooked is that if the print Times disappears, the "brand" will have a relatively short future. Day by day, it means less and less as quality journalism. One reason for that is that quality journalism is disappearing. So the Times as a brand will mean nothing. Time and again, profitable niches are overlooked for whatever reason -- the explanations would require major psych and bidness books. In this case, it would obviously mean a journalistic source that takes a good deep look at the world without significant biases. Example: No Busmiller, no Jodi Wilgoren covering a presidential candidate, no Judy Miller (and I apologize for naming women only, part of the problem is their editors as well -- and the men, such as they are, at the top.)

UPDATE: Even the Times' Public Editor thinks Keller's full ot crap:

August 13, 2006
The Public Editor
Eavesdropping and the Election: An Answer on the Question of Timing

THE NEW YORK TIMES’S Dec. 16 article that disclosed the Bush administration’s warrantless eavesdropping has led to an important public debate about the once-secret program. And the decision to write about the program in the face of White House pressure deserved even more praise than I gave it in a January column, which focused on the paper’s inadequate explanation of why it had “delayed publication for a year.”

The article, written by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, has been honored with a Pulitzer and other journalistic prizes. But contradictory post-publication comments by Times editors and others about just how long the article was held have left me increasingly concerned about one key question: Did The Times mislead readers by stating that any delay in publication came after the Nov. 2, 2004, presidential election?

In my January column, in which I refused to rely on anonymous sources, I noted that I was left “puzzled” by the election question. But I have now learned from Bill Keller, the executive editor, that The Times delayed publication of drafts of the eavesdropping article before the 2004 election. This revelation confirms what anonymous sources had told other publications such as The Los Angeles Times and The New York Observer in December.

A number of readers critical of the Bush administration have remained particularly suspicious of the article’s assertion that the publication delay dated back only “a year” to Dec. 16, 2004. They contend that pre-election disclosure of the National Security Agency’s warrantless eavesdropping could have changed the outcome of the election.

Since the Times article appeared, I have grown increasingly intrigued by changes in the way the delay has been described in the paper and in comments by Mr. Keller. A background paragraph in a follow-up article on Dec. 31 said, “The administration first learned that The New York Times had obtained information about the secret eavesdropping program more than a year ago.” Mr. Keller also began using the “more than a year” language.

My decision to take another look at the extent of the delay came after reading Mr. Keller’s response to an online question in April during “Talk to the Newsroom,” a feature on nytimes.com. Eric Sullivan, from Waunakee, Wis., commented: “I’d like to know why you sat on the N.S.A. story. You probably changed the course of an election and likely history to come.”

Mr. Keller’s rather matter-of-fact acceptance of Mr. Sullivan’s presumptions caught my eye: “Whether publishing earlier would have influenced the 2004 election is, I think, hard to say. Judging from the public reaction to the N.S.A. eavesdropping reflected in various polls, one could ask whether earlier disclosure might have helped President Bush more than hurt.”

Mr. Keller, who wouldn’t answer any questions for my January column, recently agreed to an interview about the delay, although he saw it as “old business.” But he had some new things to say about the delay and the election.

Internal discussions about drafts of the article had been “dragging on for weeks” before the Nov. 2 election, Mr. Keller acknowledged. That process had included talks with the Bush administration. He said a fresh draft was the subject of internal deliberations “less than a week” before the election.

“The climactic discussion about whether to publish was right on the eve of the election,” Mr. Keller said. The pre-election discussions included Jill Abramson, a managing editor; Philip Taubman, the chief of the Washington bureau; Rebecca Corbett, the editor handling the story, and often Mr. Risen. Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher, was briefed, but Mr. Keller said the final decision to hold the story was his.

Mr. Keller declined to explain in detail his pre-election decision to hold the article, citing obligations to preserve the confidentiality of sources. He has repeatedly indicated that a major reason for the publication delays was the administration’s claim that everyone involved was satisfied with the program’s legality. Later, he has said, it became clear that questions about the program’s legality “loomed larger within the government than we had previously understood.”

But last week Mr. Keller e-mailed me a description of how that picture had changed by December 2005, and it cast some new light on the pre-election situation for me. It implied that the paper’s pre-election sources hadn’t been sufficiently “well-placed and credible” to convince him that questions about the program’s legality and oversight were serious enough to make it “responsible to publish.” But by December, he wrote, “We now had some new people who could in no way be characterized as disgruntled bureaucrats or war-on-terror doves saying we should publish. That was a big deal.”

Holding a fresh draft of the story just days before the election also was an issue of fairness, Mr. Keller said. I agree that candidates affected by a negative article deserve to have time — several days to a week — to get their response disseminated before voters head to the polls.

So why did the Dec. 16 article say The Times had “delayed publication for a year,” specifically ruling out the possibility that the story had been held prior to the Nov. 2 election? “It was probably inelegant wording,” Mr. Keller said, who added later, “I don’t know what was in my head at the time.”

Were the wording and the sensitivity of the election-day timing issue discussed internally? “I don’t remember,” Mr. Keller said in an interview. He does remember discussing that “I wanted to own up to holding it.” And The Times does deserve credit for disclosing that it had held the story.

It was more than inelegant, however, to report flatly that the delay had lasted “a year.” Characterizing it as “more than a year,” as Mr. Keller and others later did, would have been technically accurate. But that phrase would have represented a fuzziness that Times readers shouldn’t have to put up with when a hotly contested presidential election is involved.

Given the importance of this otherwise outstanding article on warrantless eavesdropping — and now the confirmation of pre-election decisions to delay publication — The Times owes it to readers to set the official record straight.

Setting the record straight, though, is something Pinch and Keller are neither interested in nor capable of doing. Setting the record straight revealed how badly the Times dropped the ball on Jayson Blair and Miller. It would require explaining Wilgoren 2004 and Busmiller and so on and so forth. It would be nice if the Times reported in the old fashioned way and restore the value of its brand -- but that ain't happening without regime change, so to p


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