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He sees the silver lining around N.Y.'s Gray Lady

June 06, 2004|DAVID SHAW

New York — Bill KELLER has been the executive editor of the New York Times for almost a year now, having taken control of the country's most influential newspaper in the aftermath of one embarrassing scandal, in the midst of another and following the forced resignation of the paper's two top editors.

I thought the paper seemed a bit flat in the early months under Keller, but it recently seems to have regained its stride, even amid the continuing furor over its pre-war coverage of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

So, what's surprised him the most about the job?

"I've been amazed by how much fun it is," he told me when we chatted recently in his office.

Fun?

When Keller first made this comment to me, he was still wrestling with how to handle the issue of the Times and Iraq's WMD. He subsequently decided to publish a 1,700-word "From the Editors" note acknowledging how flawed that coverage had been, and when we spoke a few days after that, he said, "I won't pretend that last week was fun. But I think it was the right thing to do -- healthy for the paper and overdue ... and, yes, I'm still having fun."

Keller isn't minimizing the gravity of the editors' note or the institutional embarrassment that engendered it, but as he says: "This place offers instant therapy. You just have to sit down with someone and talk about stories, and I find that restores my spirits very quickly."

Keller has the largest staff and biggest news budget of any newspaper, and he also has the luxury of working for the Sulzberger family, with its 150-year commitment to editorial excellence and independence. But the New York Times and its top editor, whoever he is, have long been the favorite whipping boys for every special-interest group and political or journalistic malcontent on the planet. In taking over for Howell Raines, who fled after a staff revolt triggered by the Jayson Blair fabrication humiliation, Keller has found himself under an even more powerful microscope than the men who preceded him in that job.

Criticism of the editors' note he wrote on the paper's weapons of mass destruction coverage -- many felt it was too little, too late -- only served to intensify that pressure. (I thought the biggest flaw in the editors' note was its placement -- buried on page 10, with no reference to it on Page 1.)

So, fun?

"I thought being executive editor meant I'd have all these meetings and budget problems and personnel issues and pressures to deal with all the time," he says, "and yes, we do have all that. But it's a lot more fun to go to a meeting, for example, when you get to decide who else attends and what the agenda is."

He pauses, seemingly aware that what he's said might sound as, well, as imperious as Raines, who was widely seen as an arrogant tyrant in the newsroom.

Keller is neither arrogant nor tyrannical. He is confident and he is strongwilled, though, and I've always found him to be refreshingly candid in a low-key manner.

"When you're the No. 2 man," he says -- Keller was managing editor for Executive Editor Joe Lelyveld from 1997 to 2001 -- "if you do your job well, you won't stand out. Frankly, it's not very comfortable."

Keller says that when Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher, was initially interviewing him as a potential successor to Lelyveld in 2001, before picking Raines for the job, "I could tell that whenever I told him about something where I disagreed with Joe, he sat forward. That's what he wanted to hear -- what was I going to do differently? But I felt disloyal so I'd back off."

He pauses again.

"As much as I loved working for Joe, being No. 2 means suppressing a lot of yourself, and it can be a little frustrating. I didn't really like being No. 2. I like being the executive editor."

Being the boss means making tough decisions, and that's what he had to do with the editors' note on WMD coverage.

"What finally convinced us we had to do it," he says, "was that a conventional wisdom had grown up about our coverage ... that there was something funny or odd about it ... and that made it hard to continue writing about the whole road to war without addressing it."

WMD coverage aside -- Keller's editors' note said editors "who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper" -- how does his editorship differ from that of Raines, under whom those stories were published?

"I don't want to be too critical of Howell, so let's just say that when he was here, no one had any doubt about what he wanted, and the general feeling was that ideas would only be recognized and acted on and rewarded if they started in ... [his] office. I was surprised, when I took over, by how passive so many on the staff had become because of that. I knew we'd been through a really rough time," he says, "but I didn't realize just how badly beaten up the staff was and how demoralized many of the desks were."

Picking his spots

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