Bill Keller’s Long War Legacy

The defining story of eight years leading the Times.

Bill Keller, who has served as The New York Times’s executive editor since July 2003, is stepping down—and an era has ended.

It is fitting, in a way, that Keller’s resignation comes so soon after another departure that ended an era: the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Keller oversaw the bulk of the paper’s coverage and operations in the period between September 11, 2001 and Bin Laden’s capture, a period where questions of war and surveillance framed the national debate. And it seems clear that Keller’s journalistic legacy should and will be defined by how he and his paper met the challenge of this long war.

A quick overview: Keller came in after Howell Raines’s rocky, short tenure, and after two scandals that greatly damaged the Times’s reputation. One, the undetected fabrications of Jayson Blair, was picayune in its concrete impact, but a devastating embarrassment, where a young reporter’s fantasy, lies, and plagiarism were allowed to tarnish the paper’s pages and storied history.

The other, far more significant scandal was the Times’s reporting in the run up to the Iraq war—reporting that relied far too much on often-anonymous government or government-aligned sources, and failed to present adequate context to or challenge their assertions. The Times was forced to run an embarrassing ex post facto disclaimer, focused on Judith Miller’s work promoting the existence and threat of Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. This tune was in harmony with the administration’s rationale for invasion, and, blasted again and again from the pages from the Times, the paper of record, greased the path to our immeasurably costly and still-ongoing intervention in Iraq.

Keller did not oversee this reporting. Still, before assuming the top job, during his previous twenty-month stint as a senior editor and columnist that was concurrent with Miller’s worst work, he too boosted the war, warning of chemical weapons and “illicit toxins.” Keller later came to publicly regret both Miller’s work, by sanctioning the publication of said disclaimer, and his own, in a eulogy he delivered for an anti-war columnist.

Miller’s “entanglement” (the word Keller once used) with Scooter Libby and his perjury trial made her a deeply-flawed First Amendment martyr when she was imprisoned for refusing to testify in Patrick Fitzgerald’s investigation. After emerging from jail, her heavily lawyered departure from the Times, overseen by Keller, was an ignominious end to a sad chapter.

But Miller’s move from the newsroom to the rearview mirror did not come close to ending the Times’s own entanglement with the Bush administration as it went about reporting the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, or the related debates over executive power and torture.

Still to come would be the paper’s controversial decision to hold reporting on the Bush Administration’s NSA abuses, at the request of the government. The story, printed after a delay of over a year, was one of the most important of the decade, but the time it took in coming rankled its reporters—and, once they knew, many readers.

Similar concerns about bending to political wills arose in the paper’s continued refusal, despite protests from many quarters, to avoid calling torture torture when it is done by the United States. That shouldn’t obscure the valuable fact-finding the Times did in
this arena, including 2004 reporting that turned up authorization of CIA waterboarding.

The paper’s collaboration with WikiLeaks revealed to the public a massive amount of information that the government would have rather kept secret. Some called it treason, while WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange complained the paper gave him ill-quarter.

A lot happened on Keller’s watch. And no discussion of a journalistic legacy that stretched this span would be complete without mentioning the titanic business and cultural adaptations demanded by the web news cycle. At this point, it seems the Times has weathered and to an extent thrived in the storm better than almost any other legacy publication.

Still, as a matter of simple words, the yardstick of Keller’s tenure must be how the paper grappled with the greatest stories of the day. The paper’s catalogue of valuable, fair, and aggressive reporting in this era is at least as impressive as the above catalogue of controversy.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR. Tags: ,