Bill Keller’s blind spots

By Felix Salmon
May 19, 2011
passing her a pipe of crystal meth, has responded to my last post about him in an email to Steve Myers:

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Bill Keller, who proposes that Twitter makes you stupid and says that allowing a 13-year-old onto Facebook is like passing her a pipe of crystal meth, has responded to my last post about him in an email to Steve Myers:

Felix Salmon simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The Times takes care of its family — including our drivers, fixers and translators. We do not discuss the details of compensation (for anyone, including staff correspondents) but we fulfill our obligation to employees, including local hires, who are hurt or killed in the line of duty, and to their families in the case of death. (Yes, this includes Mohamed Shaglouf.)”

Keller’s latest column, with its nostalgia for a time before slide rules and even the printing press, is an indication that he’s utterly incapable of leading a 21st-Century news organization into the future. But his email to Myers is an indication that he can’t even read.

Let me try again, since I obviously failed to make my point the first time around: there is a huge debate raging in various social-media channels about the way that the NYT and other news organizations treat the local fixers who work for international reporters and photographers; Myers does a great job reporting on that debate. Keller wrote a column on the subject of wartime photographers right as the debate was raging. And in that column, he didn’t mention the debate at all; didn’t address any of the issues surrounding it; and didn’t even name a single one of those drivers, fixers and translators.

The NYT is being accused of acting as though the local fixers are less important than its flown-in superstars; Keller, in this column, acted as though they simply didn’t exist.

Shaglouf is the perfect case in point. He was with two NYT photographers — Tyler Hicks and Lynsey Addario — who were abducted in Libya; they were released, while he is assumed killed. Their names appear in Keller’s column; Shaglouf’s does not.

When “the Times takes care of its family”, in Keller’s words, part of that care is seen in public columns like Keller’s, or Mike Kamber’s eulogy to Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington — another article which mentioned zero local fixers, living or dead. A simple blog post, like Tim McGirk’s heartfelt remembrance of Raza Khan on Time.com, can mean a huge amount to a grieving family. Khan was killed while driving Addario. Here’s what Keller had to say about Khan to Myers:

Keller said that case was “sad but considerably different” from Shaglouf and the three local hires killed working for the Times. “He was a short-term hire retained to take journalists to a refugee camp and back. It was not a dangerous assignment.”

Keller put it this way: “If something like that happened to a driver you hired in New York, you would feel terrible, but would you believe you had an obligation to compensate his family? I doubt it. Even so, the Times raised a few thousand dollars for his family in Pakistan.”

Somehow I doubt that these words will provide the succor, back in Pakistan, that McGirk’s did. And note too, that just after saying that he never discusses the details of compensation for anyone, Keller goes right ahead and says the the NYT raised a few thousand dollars for Khan’s family. Rules are made to be broken, I guess.

In any case, my point was never that the NYT didn’t compensate the families of local fixers injured or killed in the line of duty. I’m sure that the NYT lives up to whatever it considers its obligation to be in such cases. But I’m equally sure that local fixers are not treated the same way as foreign reporters and photographers.

But what’s undeniable is that Keller, when writing about the human cost of war reporting in the NYT Magazine, completely ignored those fixers. That’s what I was talking about. And all I needed to do to know it was read his column.

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