Last week Bill Keller, editor of the New York Times, spoke at forum in London hosted by The Guardian. His remarks covered a lot of territory including journalistic craft, the financial travails of print media, the Internet and blogs, editorial independence, and the influence and manipulation of governments and their representatives. In one passage Keller delivered another apology for the abysmal mishandling of the Times’ coverage leading up to the invasion of Iraq.
“I’ve had a few occasions to write mea culpas for my paper after we let down our readers in more important ways, including for some reporting before the war in Iraq that should have dug deeper and been more sceptical about Iraq’s purported weapons of mass destruction.”
That’s an admission of the obvious. But it doesn’t comport with a comment earlier in the speech wherein Keller confesses that he had not foreseen…
“…the catastrophe that the war in Iraq would become, whereas I – out of a combination of contrarianism and wishful thinking – thought the United States was capable of eliminating a murderous tyrant without making a lethal hash of it.”
That’s an entirely different explanation. He is no longer merely accepting responsibility for shoddy work and misplaced trust in administration flacks. He is now conceding that the paper’s editorial position at the time was that the invasion was warranted and winnable. And what the hell does he mean by contrarianism? To what position was his contrary? Virtually every media outpost was slinging the same administration hash, and even Congress overwhelmingly went along with the fallacies peddled by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, etc. There were pockets of dissent in the populace, but even there the mood for war was palpable. However, that was due, at least in part, to the absence of honest reporting from fully compromised media relics like the Times.
Now take a moment to read this paragraph from Keller’s speech:
“Whatever you think of its policies, the current administration has been more secretive, more mistrustful of an inquisitive press, than any since the Nixon administration. It has treated freedom of information requests with contempt, asserted sweeping claims of executive privilege, even reclassified material that had been declassified. The administration has subsidised propaganda at home and abroad, refined the art of spin, discouraged dissent, and sought to limit traditional congressional oversight and court review. The war in Iraq alone is a case study of the administration’s determination to dominate the flow of information – from the original cherry-picking of intelligence, to the deliberate refusal to hear senior military officers when they warned of the potential for chaos, to the continually inflated claims about the progress in building up an indigenous Iraqi army.”
You have to wonder when Keller arrived at these conclusions. Millions of Americans have known these things for years. We have been fighting to expose this destructive and anti-democratic regime since they stole the election in 2000. We have had little support from the likes of Keller and the New York Times. On the contrary, we have been on the receiving end of endless criticism and ridicule. We have been characterized as everything from partisan to extremist to fringe to unpatriotic, and worse.
Now Keller articulates exactly what we’ve been saying all along. While it’s good to hear, there are a couple of egregious omissions. First of all, he has not retracted any of the disparaging allusions to extremism or treason, and he never acknowledges that those of us who were longstanding dissidents were right from the start. Secondly, he has not altered the editorial stance of his paper one iota in light of the opinions he now asserts above. They are still pushing the administration’s agenda; they still employ the reporters who made all the mistakes for which he is supposedly apologizing; they are committing the same errors with regard to Iran that they made with Iraq by trumpeting BushCo’s warmongering and regurgitating their unsupported allegations.
To top it all off, I think it is interesting that Keller delivered this address to an industry audience in England. Now, I have no problem with his going abroad to deliver this speech. What concerns me is that the link I provided above goes to the site of The Guardian newspaper in the UK. Guess who has not covered this speech … That’s right, the New York Times! Even their rivals at the Washington Post published excerpts from the speech (courtesy of Dan Froomkin) and linked to the full text at The Guardian. Doesn’t Keller think that his fellow citizens here in the states deserve to hear what his thoughts are about issues that are critical to his customers and his country? Was there a deliberate decision to shield Americans from views that are critical of the President and his administration? Is this a demonstration of his lack of faith in his people as well as his profession? That’s a question Keller raises himself:
“In the end, I believe the gravest danger to the future of newspapers is not a hostile administration in Washington, not the acid rain of criticism, not a business model upended by new technology, it is a loss of faith, a failure of resolve on the part of the people who make newspapers.”
I tend to agree that faith in the adversarial role of the Fourth Estate has waned as the press finds more companionship with the institutions they should be covering than with the public they were intended to serve. The interests of the corporate media and the corporate-sponsored government are so intertwined that hopes for an independent press corps that checks the abuses of government seems more remote every day. However, in that respect there seems to be no lack of resolve.
If Keller truly believes the things he said last week he needs to bring that message back the the U.S. and let people know about it. He needs to specifically outline the changes he’ll make to the paper to prevent similar failures from occurring in the future. He needs to educate his reporters (and his readers) as to the deceptive practices of this administration and the potential for future administrations for engaging in the same deceptions. If he truly believes that those who hold the reins of power will stoop to manipulate the people and the press, then he needs to make sure that we are less vulnerable to their machinations. At the very least, he must not allow his reporters to be fooled the way that he now admits he was. And if he will not do these simple things, then who knows what he truly believes? And who knows what we can believe if we read it in the Times?