Bill Keller vs openness and transparency

By Felix Salmon
March 26, 2011

Bill Keller has now written two three columns for Hugo Lindgren’s NYT Magazine, and both of them the last two have taken aim at the Huffington Post.

The first one didn’t go so well: not only did it have an opening paragraph of astonishing braggadocio, but it also elicited a blistering response from Arianna which made him look decidedly petty. He then replied to Arianna on the magazine’s blog — except he violated the first rule of blogging, and failed to link to the argument he was engaging. So when he talked about “the reaction” to his column, or “clueless commentary”, the lack of any link was a CYA move, giving him the opportunity to say “oh no, I didn’t mean you“.

Keller did however say a couple of nice things about Arianna:

I think she’s a shrewd entrepreneur and a charming woman. Also, we seem to share a belief in hiring professional journalists; she’s hired some good ones from The Times.

This, too, was presented without a hyperlink. But it was clearly a reference to the way in which Arianna poached first Peter Goodman and then Tim O’Brien to help beef up HuffPo’s news coverage. Both were NYT stars, and Keller was quite right to call them good journalists.

Which brings me to Keller’s second column, where we he tries to talk about “the essentials that set us apart from agenda-driven journalists of the right and the left”, and explains that NYT journalists “are expected to set aside their own politics in the performance of their duties”:

This does not mean — as one writer recently scoffed — that we “poll people at both extremes of any issue, then paint a line down the middle and point to it as reality.” It does not mean according equal weight to every point of view, no matter how far-fetched. (Sorry, birthers, but President Obama is an American citizen.) Impartiality is, for us, not just a matter of pretending to be neutral; it is a healthful, intellectual discipline. Once you proclaim an opinion, you may feel an urge to defend it, and that creates a temptation to overlook inconvenient facts when you should be searching them out.

Wow, who is this dreadful scoffer — this person who just pretends to be neutral — who dares to imply that the NYT gives credence to birthers? Again, Keller provides no link. But he does provide a direct quote, which makes it very easy to identify his unnamed critic as none other than… Peter Goodman, who was talking in general, and not about the NYT in particular, in a 2,000-word HuffPo essay titled “Beyond Left And Right: It’s About Reality”.

Keller’s failure to link to or otherwise identify Goodman is simple intellectual dishonesty — it’s a way of giving the truth but not the whole truth, a way of hiding his agenda and making the meaning of his column opaque to most readers while still transparent to the insidery few. (Chris Anderson has a less polite way of putting it.)

And that’s not the only piece of intellectual dishonesty in the passage. If he were being honest, Keller would admit that some of the NYT’s most highly-paid journalists run directly into the issue he’s talking about — that “once you proclaim an opinion, you may feel an urge to defend it, and that creates a temptation to overlook inconvenient facts when you should be searching them out”. This happens with sports columnists (yawn); it also, however, happens on the business pages, where Andrew Ross Sorkin and Gretchen Morgenson are both charged with pulling off the double act of being reporters and columnists at the same time.

On top of that, dozens more NYT reporters proclaim their opinions in other venues — in radio interviews, in books, in their Twitter feeds. It’s hard to see why those proclaimed opinions should have any less of a deleterious effect on the reporting of facts.

In his urge to place himself in opposition to everything that HuffPo stands for, it seems, Bill Keller has dug himself into a nasty hole. The NYT is urging its reporters onto Twitter, has set up its own imprint to publish their books, and is even publishing magazine editors’ email addresses along with those of the writers. (Although for some reason that rule doesn’t apply to Keller’s column.) The NYT needs to make its mind up: is it going to stand up for openness and transparency and human reporters who dare to have opinions, or is its beef with HuffPo going to force a retreat to some unobtainable halcyon past where reporters handed down the news from Mount Olympus to a grateful public which had no means to effectively respond? Keller might talk the talk when it comes to social openness and transparency. But his heart clearly isn’t in it.

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