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bill keller

Keller has been the executive editor of The New York Times since July 2003. He has been at the Times since 1984, and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for his coverage of the Soviet Union. This wide-ranging transcript is drawn from three interviews, conducted on July 10, Oct. 18 and Nov. 30, 2006.

Do you remember when you first found out that [Times reporter] Judy Miller had been subpoenaed?

... When I learned that she was being subpoenaed, my reaction was, first of all, well, why didn't I know that she'd had this information in the first place, or did anybody know that we'd had this information in the first place?; and second of all, "Oh my God, we've been subpoenaed." ...

And did you feel like this was a good case or the right case to fight over it?

I think it was a case that we had to fight, but you probably couldn't have picked a worse one. It was a terrible case. It was a terrible case because you had a reporter who had a kind of political cloud over her head -- not entirely fairly, but she had been sort of demonized by the left for the stories that she'd written about WMD [weapons of mass destruction] prior to the invasion of Iraq. ...

Second of all, ... it certainly didn't appear to be the case of a whistleblower revealing some questionable act on the part of the government, but a leak that was apparently made as part of a smear campaign. The underlying principle that we try to protect our sources, including against subpoenas before grand juries, is a good principle, but it's a very, very hard one to explain to the general public given both the problematic nature of the reporter and the problematic nature of the leak. I think everybody wished that it was a cleaner case.

But do you ever really get to choose?

No, which is why we ended up fighting this one as best we could.

So when Judy finally relented after 85 days in prison and agreed to testify, did that in a sense undercut the whole principle of resistance?

Well it made it much harder to explain what the fight was all about. That's certainly the case. ...

One of the problems here was that she was obviously the subject of great criticism ... because of the nature of her coverage of the weapons of mass destruction issue. … In the end, was she really responsible for all of that, or was that really a problem of the editors at The New York Times?

I wrote the editor's note where we went back and re-examined all of that coverage, much of it Judy's, although not all of it. ... I think people lost sight of the whole climate at the time that she was writing those stories; you can find people who write about Judy Miller as if she started the war in Iraq all by herself without even any involvement of the Bush administration.

“It may seem odd to ordinary Americans that somebody like me has the power to defy the president of the United States, but in fact, that's the way the inventors of the country set things up, because the alternative was to let the government be the final arbiter of its own flow of information.”

The fact of the matter is, in the run-up to the war in Iraq, everybody believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. It wasn't an eccentric view or a warmonger's view or a right-wing view. In fact, we now know from Michael Gordon's book [Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq], his own generals believed that he had WMD, and they only learned it on the eve of the war ... that they didn't have any weapons of mass destruction to fend off the invaders with. ...

Now, in that context, a lot of people wrote stories that were I think overly credulous. It wasn't, you know, some kind of sense of overdeveloped patriotism or an eagerness on the part of reporters to ingratiate themselves with the White House. What it was was the reporters want to get on the front page; they want scoops. ...

Judy, I think, shares the responsibility because she came up with some questionable information from questionable sources. The paper shares the responsibility for not second-guessing her and third-guessing her on those stories and then for putting them on the top of the front page. ...

The criticism that I've heard of these editor's notes is that ... these editor's notes are saying to reporters, "Now you have to be prescient, too." ...

You don't have to be prescient, but you have to be skeptical; that's all. And the stories that we identified in both of those cases, both the Wen Ho Lee [case of the Los Alamos scientist accused of spying for China] and the WMD case, were a more serious transgression of our responsibilities. In both of those cases, the shortcomings of the story should have been evident on the day they were published. You didn't have to know how things came out to know that there was something not quite fully supported in this story. ...

And when Judy says she got the story wrong because "If your sources are wrong, you are wrong; it's that simple"?

Well, it's not that simple. That assumes that you're taking material from your sources uncritically and putting it in the newspaper, and that's not the way it's supposed to work.

It's not supposed to work that way.

No. There's a term of art in the business: "reporting against your sources." It's something that most of us learned to do, and all of us as editors encourage reporters to do, which is: "OK, your sources told you that this is true. Where are you most likely to find a contradictory point of view? Go test your evidence, and then show your work." ...

She says that the long piece that the Times ran after she got out of jail, combined with the "Woman of Mass Destruction" column, that the Times betrayed her.

I think the Times stood by her from beginning to end. We owed our readers our best reported account of what happened in that case, and we gave it to them. I don't edit the op-ed page or the columnists, but I don't think Maureen Dowd, who wrote that column, would claim to speak for the Times, and if Judy chooses to see that as a betrayal by the Times, she's free to see it any way she wants.

And she says that the WMD editor's note, by implication, singled her out and didn't really discuss the editors or the other reporters involved. ...

I think her memory fails her. The world's attention was focused on Judy for a year before I wrote that editor's note, if not longer. The editor's note did not focus on anybody by name. It listed specific stories. Most of them were hers or had her as one of the two bylines. There was also a Web site in which we listed a number of stories that we were proud of. So no, the editor's note was not a Judy-bashing exercise -- on the contrary. ...

In fairness to Judy, if you walk down our Pulitzer hallway, you will see her picture on a series of articles that we ran that were the first in the mainstream media to focus attention on Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. She was way ahead of the competition in recognizing the potential threat of terrorism, and specifically of Al Qaeda. ...

In Judy Miller's account of her testimony in the Times, she revealed a series of agreements with Scooter Libby about how he would be identified. She agreed to refer to him as "a former Hill staffer." Is this arrangement typical?

No. I hope it's not typical, and it's not acceptable. It's a clear violation of our ethics policy. The idea in writing about anonymous sources is to avoid identifying them but not to deliberately misidentify them. ...

Sounds like something you regret, the whole situation.

There are certainly aspects of it I regret. The principle is the principle, and I would rather work at a place that stands up for that principle than one that doesn't. There are a lot of things about the paper's relationship with Judy Miller that I would like to take mulligans on. ...

But do you regret that you wound up getting the Court of Appeals to reassert Branzburg [v. Hayes] without any equivocation whatsoever?

Well, I didn't get the Court of Appeals to do that. The Court of Appeals did that all on their own.

Well, you took the case there.

Yeah, and we could have decided to fold our tent earlier and cut a deal. Woulda, shoulda, coulda. ... That's sort of hard to know in hindsight. ...

Were you surprised when you heard about the waivers in the case: that everyone in the White House had to sign a form, and therefore if there was a confidential source, he's saying [to reporters], "Talk"?

My reaction to the waivers was that somebody's come up with a novel and really troublesome strategy for chilling sources, and that if we butt into the idea of these blanket waivers -- that everybody who goes to work for the federal government or Enron, for that matter, signs a blanket waiver as a condition of employment -- if we bought into that, we could very well be collaborators in major chilling of the flow of information. ...

But it worked with your colleagues at NBC, at The Washington Post, initially with Mr. [Matt] Cooper at Time magazine. ... Your colleagues weren't united in your resistance.

That's true. That's also, I think, a factor of what I said before, that this was not an ideal case to fight. It was just not a pretty picture all around, and I think that contributed to the lack of solidarity, the lack of a united front. ...

How did you feel when other people were making deals, saying, "I'll go in and testify this much," or, "I'll go in and testify because I don't really think I know anything," and now everybody's winding up being witnesses in a criminal trial?

At the time I felt that there was a failure of spine on the part of the journalism community at large. I think in hindsight, when we finally ended up relenting and Judy ended up testifying, I felt like we may have been a little too quick to charge out on the limb and vociferously defend the principle. Part of me that wonders whether we might have gotten a deal at the beginning comparable to the one that we got at the end and Judy could have been spared a long jail sentence.

Norman Pearlstine, [former editor of] Time magazine, said that he gave up Matt Cooper's notes from Time magazine's e-mail files because a corporation, he says, cannot be engaged in civil disobedience. Do you agree?

Norm, I think, did what he did after a lot of anguish and soul-searching, serious thought, but his position was very much different from ours. Fortunately, we were not in the position of having the possession of relevant materials, so the Times as a company wasn't sued. I still think that had we been in that position, we would have fought on the notes, but it's awfully hard to say when you aren't actually in that position. ...

Does a reporter at The New York Times operate now with the confidence that the company isn't going to give up their notes, their e-mails?

That gets into a whole realm of legal argument that I don't particularly want to get into and I'm not qualified to get into, which is the question of who owns notes and who owns e-mails and who has custodial rights of that material. ... I think a reporter at the Times has assurance that the company will do as much as it can possibly do to defend them. ...

Say I submit my phone bills to you -- my phone bills have the phone numbers of my sources -- for reimbursement. Are you going to protect them?

In fact, we are protecting your phone records in a separate case, the one involving that mosque in Chicago, and quite successfully. ... I think reporters here count on that, and I think they're right to. ...

I understand New York Times policy now is that a reporter has to identify his source to an editor, ... and the editors would have to participate then in what the generic description was of the source?

Well, often it doesn't require a lot of imagination to do that. Some are "senior White House official" -- that kind of term of art occurs all the time. But in complicated cases, editors do get involved in exactly how you're going to characterize this person. My mantra in these cases is always, "We want to tell the reader as much as we can about why we think this person knew the information and whether they had an ax to grind." ...

But do you believe that all sources -- whether they are whistleblowers or government officials who want to get their point across, speaking off the record or expecting anonymity -- should be defended?

No, absolutely not. ... Obviously reporters make different decisions, but there are occasions when I would feel comfortable breaking a pledge of confidentiality to a source: if, for example, it was clear that somebody had lied to you in an attempt to use the newspaper for some agenda. ... You don't get a free pass. Talking to a reporter anonymously doesn't give you a free pipeline into the pages of the newspaper. ...

Let me switch for a minute here back to Wen Ho Lee, but to more recent events in it. There was a privacy suit that involved The New York Times. What was the issue, and why did The New York Times settle?

The privacy suit was against the government, but it was clear that in order to make his case against the government, he had to identify which government agency had allegedly violated his privacy rights. In order to do that, he subpoenaed reporters from the Times and several other news organizations in hopes that they would identify their sources. ... We resisted subpoenas and fought them in court for what, six years I believe? And in the end we were party to a settlement that involved most of the news organizations and the government that essentially paid Wen Ho Lee to go away.

Doesn't that encourage more people to do the same thing?

That's clearly the right question. ... In this case, Wen Ho Lee spent six years fighting us in the courts and ended up with a settlement that I would bet paid only a fraction of his legal costs, so that hardly looms as an incentive to others to follow suit. ...

The administration, did they call you up about this [National Security Agency (NSA)] eavesdropping story? ... When did you get invited into the White House?

After we'd done the initial reporting and gotten the story to where we thought it was something we could responsibly publish, we told the administration that we intended to do that. There ensued another round of meetings, including another round with an array of Cabinet-level officials. Then we were told at that meeting that if we persisted in our determination to publish this story, the president might want to talk to me and the publisher about this. And we said, of course we obviously would accept an invitation to hear from the president. ...

The ground rules of the meeting, which we agreed to, were that it would be off the record because the President wanted the opportunity to present us with what he said were classified details about the effectiveness of the program that he thought would persuade us not to publish the article. I'm obviously going to honor our obligation not to talk about anything classified. But the basic fact that the meeting took place, the White House has already talked about. ...

And so [Publisher] Arthur Sulzberger and I went down to the White House, with Phil Taubman, the Washington bureau chief, and we were escorted into the Oval Office. That's my first visit, probably my last visit to the Bush Oval Office. And we met with the president; the national security adviser; the White House counsel; and Gen. [Michael] Hayden, who was then still the head of the National Security Agency, the agency in charge of the eavesdropping program. ...

The president said quite forcefully that this program was something he regarded as part of the crown jewels of our national security, and that if we exposed it, we would be at least in part responsible, or [should] feel ourselves responsible, if there was another attack on the U.S. I think what he said was, "When we were called up to explain to Congress why there was another attack, you should be sitting beside us at the table." ...

When the president said that, did you and Mr. Sulzberger and Mr. Taubman look at each other? I mean, did you gulp?

Look, you take a warning like that very seriously indeed. I mean, it's the president of the United States saying that if you publish this story, you will have blood on your hands. ... I'm paraphrasing, but that was the clear message. He's the commander in chief of the world's foremost military power, and we were sitting in an office that is kind of steeped in history, and I'm sure all of the atmospherics were intended to have the effect that they had, which is that we took it very, very seriously. ... The president had wrapped it up by reiterating that he thought what we were about to do was a mistake.

Would give aid and comfort to our enemies.

Would give aid and comfort to our enemies, yes.

That was the gist of what he said.

Um-hmm.

So as you left the Oval Office, what did you and the publisher and the Washington bureau chief say to each other?

We walked down to the corner ... to catch our taxis in various directions, and I said to the publisher that I wanted to obviously sleep on it and think about what we just heard, but my first impression was I hadn't heard anything there that had changed my mind. And he said he hadn't either. ...

And why didn't he persuade you?

Because in the end I don't believe that that's the case. I don't question the president's sincerity. I'm sure that he felt very strongly that it's important, particularly in perilous times, for the president to have extraordinary powers to defend the country, and that [revealing] the existence of those powers could put them in danger.

But in the end, you can't defer to the government on these kinds of decisions. It may seem odd to ordinary Americans that somebody like me has the power to defy the president of the United States, but in fact, that's the way the inventors of the country set things up, because the alternative was to let the government be the final arbiter of its own flow of information. ...

You were reluctant to publish the story when you first heard about it or you first read a draft of it, I assume. What was wrong with the story initially?

With the original draft of the story, ... I tended to think of it as a story about a secret program, which tended towards intelligence gathering sources and methods, which is a tricky area to get into. You know, as time went on and I thought about it more, talked more to the reporters, it became clear to me this was not really a story about sources and methods. It was a story about warrants. ...

Did the decision to hold the story in any way relate to the 2004 election, that it was actually before the election?

No. We didn't run the story because I didn't think it would be responsible to run the story, and that had nothing to do with the elections. I'll give you just two pieces of evidence that you can consider in deciding whether you want to believe that or not.

A few days before for the election, we published the story about the American military's failure to protect a big cache of weapons and high explosives in Iraq. ... We published that six or seven days, eight days before the election. We were accused of an October surprise, an ambush, but we published it because the story was right; in fact, subsequent reporting by us and others only made that security breach seem even more egregious. ...

And the other point is if we had held the story because of the election, we would have published it a week after or a month after the election. ... There's an interesting question of whether or not publishing it would have made a difference in the election. ... It seems to me you could plausibly argue that, given the fact that at that time Americans were still very supportive of the president in his efforts to thwart terrorists, that exposing this program might have played in the president's favor. ...

[Times reporter] James Risen took a book leave and in that manuscript wrote about this program. Is that one of the reasons you decided that the story was [going to] come out anyway, that you'd take another look at it?

... It was a factor in the sense that it got the reporting going again. At that point, Eric Lichtblau did a lot of the subsequent reporting because Jim was polishing up his book. Between the two of them, they brought home the evidence that really persuaded us that this was a good story. ...

... Between the 2004 election and the publication of the story, public support for the president's program, particularly in Iraq but in general, was diminishing. Did that make you feel more comfortable publishing?

... I would say no. It wasn't so much a matter of the popularity of the president or his war on terror. But one thing that did change between 2004 and 2005 was ... the concentration of executive power in the hands of the president. There had been a whole series of stories that had made that one of the fundamental questions of our time, and that added to the sense that the story that we published was important. ...

My own contacts in the intelligence community say [reporting] the existence of eavesdropping by the administration didn't necessarily harm anything. What did bother them was a follow-up story in which The New York Times published the way in which this eavesdropping is being done. ... That's something that, while it wasn't classified, is a method and something that terrorists were not aware of.

I don't know whether terrorists were aware of that or not. My hunch is that terrorists tend to assume extraordinary powers, including extraordinary technological prowess, on the part of the Americans, and I think they tend to assume that the American government uses that power in any way it can.

With that said, the existence of that hub was not classified information, as you say. We weren't revealing anything that was secret, although it had not been written about in quite so prominent a forum. But the other question was, what is the role and the responsibility of the major telecommunications companies, most of whom were party to this eavesdropping program? That is a legitimate question for public discussion, I think.

And then the SWIFT [terrorist financial surveillance program] story. That resulted in even greater outcry.

Clearly when we talked about the SWIFT story we anticipated that they would come after us. I don't know that we anticipated they'd come out after us quite as noisily as they did. But we expected that it would be controversial. ...

Somebody asked Congressman Peter King, a Republican from New York who was one of the people who was calling us traitors and urging that we be prosecuted in some way after the banking story, "Why are you so angry at The New York Times?" And he sort of looked at the camera with that kind of sly smile and said, "Recidivism." Basically, this is the second time. We were repeat offenders, and that's why the anger was so much greater the second time around. That's probably part of it. ...

You're smiling, but what they really are saying is that you're arrogant, elitist, want to do things your own way, and don't understand the rest of America, which is much more patriotic than you are. ...

We're not agnostics on the subject of terrorism. We take that very personally indeed. But I don't buy the notion that it's patriotic or -- or humane to always take your government at its word. ...

In this case, you didn't have the question of legality.

... There are some officials in Europe, where the banking surveillance program has its hub, who have questioned the legality of the program under European law, which isn't nothing. But it's true that in the case of domestic eavesdropping, there were very strong feelings that the program exceeded the legal authority of the president. Those feelings were much less strong in the case of the banking story.

[There are] several reasons for writing about it, but I think the main one, again, is this context: the concentration of executive power. This is a program that was taking place without the kind of congressional oversight that you would normally expect. There were some members of Congress who knew about it; there were quite a few members of Congress who normally would have been apprised of a program who did not know about it. ...

In this particular instance, there were meetings between New York Times editors and the administration, in addition to reporters.

Yes. I spent a little more than an hour with the secretary of the treasury, and I had a phone call from John Negroponte, [director of national] intelligence. I think some of our other editors had other conversations.

... Didn't [9/11 Commission Co-Chair] Lee Hamilton call you?

Lee Hamilton did not call me. I think he talked to Phil Taubman. We got calls, as far as I know, from three people: from [9/11 Commission Vice Chair] Lee Hamilton, [9/11 Commission Chair] Tom Kean and [Rep.] Jack Murtha [D-Pa.]. I spoke to one of them, Phil Taubman spoke to one of them, and [Times managing editor] Jill Abramson spoke to one of them. ...

The administration has declared that those three people pleaded with us not to publish this story. All three of those people spoke to us with the understanding that their conversations would be private, and I'm not going to violate any of those individual conversations. But you should go hear from them whether they did in fact plead with us not to publish, because I can tell you it ain't so.

Can you tell us about what went on in those conversations?

In general terms, since they've felt free to talk about it from their side, they argued a number of points. First of all, they argued that this program was good and valuable. They argued that it was legal, that safeguards were in place to prevent abuses, and that it had been effective in tracking down some terrorists and prosecuting others. ...

They made, essentially, two arguments: One of them, which they made to my mind in a fairly halfhearted way, almost as an afterthought, was that this would reveal to terrorists anti-terror operations that would then be useful to them in plotting how to evade them; the other argument they made was -- and this one they made with considerably more conviction, I think -- was that the success of this program depended on the cooperation of a consortium of bankers. Bankers are politically skittish, and so if this program saw the light of day, some of those bankers might be embarrassed before their constituents or shareholders and feel the need to withdraw their cooperation. ...

We certainly considered their argument; we didn't dismiss it lightly. ... But it's a judgment call in which you weigh the value to the public of making the information public against the potential risks of publishing, ... and we came out to a different place from the administration.

They would still come back and say, who are you, Bill Keller, to decide? ... Why don't you just go talk to your congressman, for instance, and find out whether or not Congress has been briefed? Or maybe Congress should take this up. ...

Look, our job -- and it's been the job of the press as long as the press has existed -- is to help produce an informed electorate so that they can make up their minds. In the case of the war on terror, when you're in one of these really sensitive, fearful times, our job is to let readers know how their government is doing: Are they doing a good job in protecting the country? You can't do that if you allow the government to be your editor or to be your censor. ...

... But it's kind of interesting to turn the telescope around and ask: This administration's focus on trying to control the flow of information, what effect does that have on national security? I would argue that it has damaged national security in a couple of ways. One of them is that by demonstrating very little tolerance of dissenting views within the government, ... the administration has created a lot of sources. ...

There's a really interesting piece that Jonathan Rauch wrote in the October Atlantic, ["Unwinding Bush"]. ... You need rules for how we're going to fight this war, and there ought to be a national consensus for those rules to stand up. What he argues is that instead, the administration, by trying to run the war on terror out of its hip pocket, ... what they've done is missed the opportunity to build a national and even international consensus.

So when we think about the press and national security, our natural impulse is to drop into a defensive crouch and say, "No, it's our First Amendment right to do this." Which it is, but I would say it's also a positive good that we should celebrate: That by exposing some of these programs, we have kicked off the kind of national debate that might actually create a consensus and might build the kind of rules for the war on terror that would sustain the country for a long time. ...

There is a very serious criminal leak investigation going on in Washington ... into finding who leaked information to James Risen and Eric Lichtblau on the NSA eavesdropping story, and it appears also on the SWIFT story. I assume that they've moved into that direction. Do you expect some new subpoenas?

They haven't officially contacted us yet at all. As of today, as we sit there, we have not heard a word from the administration. ... It is part of the ritual in Washington that governments keep secrets, but they also use secrets as a kind of currency. Presidents classify information and then leak it selectively when it serves their purpose: to intimidate an enemy power; to help get an appropriation bill passed; even occasionally to discredit a political opponent. ...

So there is this kind of dance that goes on in Washington, and some of that was evident, I thought, in the SWIFT banking monitoring story. [Treasury] Secretary Snow, who denounced that story, ... three years earlier that same Secretary Snow had taken a group of reporters, including one of ours, around mostly the Middle East for six days to show off how impressive the government's operation was in monitoring international financial transactions, because at the time they wanted us to write about how relentless they were being in the attempt to cut off the flow of money to terrorist activities. ...

So one man's security breach is another man's PR campaign, and sometimes it's the same man. ... If it's hypocrisy, it's a hypocrisy that has actually served the country pretty well over the years. ... The ambiguity is the lubricant that allows the relationship between the government and the press to function. If the government tried to be absolute on the matter of leaking of secret information, there would be very little public understanding of what the government is up to. ...

You know what the Espionage Act is, right?

I'm not a lawyer, but I know what it is.

The New York Times was threatened 35 years ago. You think they're more serious this time?

Oh, I don't know. I don't know how serious they are about the Espionage Act, honestly, I don't. ... I'm not in the business of predicting what the attorney general or the president is going to do, but my instinct is that at this point they're largely brandishing the Espionage Act in hopes that that will make us nervous and intimidate us. Maybe intimidate some of our sources. ...

It's like 35 years later, the circumstances are somewhat similar: There's a disenchantment with a partially declared war; there's a focus on The New York Times as the traitor in our midst, the potential violator of the Espionage Act; and there's a standoff in the Court.

That's right. All of those things feel a little like history repeating itself, except that the climate is changed by the profusion of other voices in the media and the extent of the political polarization in the country. ... [Ben] Bradlee and Abe Rosenthal, who were the editors at the time of The Washington Post and The New York Times, operated in both an economic climate and to some extent a cultural climate which gave them a little greater authority. ...

I'm not saying that Ben Bradlee or Abe Rosenthal were universally acknowledged in the country as icons of authority, but they didn't have 1,000 blogs nipping at their heels and second-guessing everything they did. ...

We interviewed Jeff Jarvis, for instance, or some of the people who are outspoken proponents of the Internet. And they say the old model is obsolete, wastes money. There's now millions of journalists out there. You're not taking advantage of all those citizen journalists or networkers, as he would put it.

Jeff and I have talked about this. I always tease him by telling him I prefer to call them vigilante journalists. If your definition of journalists includes people who riff on the news, who give you their opinions about things, then yes, there are millions of journalists out there, and that's a good thing. If your definition of journalists is people who actually go out and report things, who bring some authority to a subject, then there are not millions of citizen journalists. ...

Some blogs are pockets of expertise like the one that Dan Rather ran afoul of: somebody who had expertise in typewriter fonts. Some blogs are very, very smart analysts of events. Some are actual witnesses; there are some good bloggers in Iraq, for example, both American military and Iraqis. But most of them are recyclers. They riff on the news, and they tell you what they think of it. Those so-called citizen journalists would be out of business without us, because we supply them with their raw material. ...

But you are sensitive to the bloggers, you said. You are sensitive, I assume, to Fox [News] television, to the kind of conservative talk radio that's out there pounding away?

I'm a typical thin-skinned human journalist. I don't like hearing us bashed in the conservative media, but I've gotten used to that. There's a difference, though: When Bill O'Reilly or Ann Coulter take off after The New York Times, I think most people understand that that's showmanship, that's Ann Coulter's shtick. Maybe she really believes, as she said, that Timothy McVeigh should have blown up his truck in front of The New York Times building instead of the [Murrah] Federal Building in Oklahoma, but I don't think so. I think that's for effect, and it sells books, and people understand that.

What happens when they say that you should go to the gas chamber?

That particular one came from a right-wing talk show host in San Francisco, and people understand when it's showmanship. When it comes from the vice president of the United States, when it comes from members of Congress, it stirs up a different kind of feeling. You can see it in the caliber of the mail and the phone calls that we've received. People tend to take that, I think, as license to trod out their deepest hatreds. ...

I don't mean to be too cynical about the motivations of the president and the attorney general, but some of it clearly is political. It's not an accident that a certain number of these speeches decrying The New York Times happen to be at the microphones of Republican fundraising events. The New York Times is red meat to a certain slice of the conservative base. ...

In January 2004, The New York Times created a new beat for covering the conservative movement. Why?

The conservatives clearly were the dominant force in Washington. They controlled the White House and both houses of Congress. There was a new vitality and self-confidence among conservative lobby groups. We didn't really get them that well. It seemed to be worthwhile to assign a reporter to look at conservative interest groups, the theories and the ideologies motivating those groups, their tactics and techniques and their relationships with the White House and Congress. It produced a lot of excellent reporting.

You didn't get them that well? ... Because you're a liberal, Eastern elite?

No, although I think the caricature of the Times as a liberal, Eastern elite probably meant that they were less forthcoming in talking to us. ... I do think it's generally been true that mainstream news organizations have done less well covering ... conservatives than they have covering liberals. That is to say, they're more likely to be written about in a kind of two-dimensional way. ...

When they do polls, it turns out a vast majority of [reporters] vote Democratic or they're relatively liberal. The New York Times announces gay marriages in its wedding pages, even though it's not legal in New York state. I could see conservatives [who] say that they are for "family values" saying: "You see? They just admitted it. Their editorial practices are aberrant, against the norms."

No. Our editorial practices are inclusive, I would say. We are a newspaper that is headquartered in a big city. We are read mostly by people who have a higher-than-normal level of college education and tend to be successful and curious. Although we have a significant amount of red-state readership, I think the people who read us in the red states are probably somewhat more urban in their attitudes. That's not quite the same as saying that we are politically liberal.

The idea that we are partisan on anybody's behalf is just wrong. Just as judges or schoolteachers or military officers have personal views of their own but are expected to perform their duties in a responsible and impartial fashion, that's what we expect of our journalists, too. I don't really care whether somebody on my staff believes in gay marriage or the estate tax. ... Our job is not to tell people what to think; it's to give them the information they need to make up their own minds. ...

... As a competitor of yours, what can you say about the Los Angeles Times situation?

Well, I've got to qualify everything I say by saying I've never worked at the L.A. Times, ... so this is the view from afar. I do appreciate, as somebody who grew up in California, that the L.A. Times has a kind of strategic problem that's different from a lot of other places: L.A. is so sprawling and spread out, and most of the people who live in their circulation area don't think of themselves as living in L.A. There's even a kind of antipathy towards the name in the region, let alone in Northern California. So that creates all kinds of difficulties.

But the idea that the L.A. Times is going to say to readers, "Buy the L.A. Times, we will tell you what's going on with the traffic and the schools and the cops and the local stuff, and if you want to know what's going on in Iraq, go buy The New York Times," that doesn't sound like a terribly sound business approach either. And if I were a Los Angelino, I would be a little insulted by that. Why are the two mutually exclusive? ...

What the current publisher, Mr. [David] Hiller, said to us was that The New York Times' model is not a model for the L.A. Times. The New York Times has, as he put it, given up its local circulation, which has gone way down, for a national circulation, and the L.A. Times would die if that happens.

I don't think we've given up our local circulation, but we've rebalanced our circulation so that it's more than half of it is national, that's true. I don't know what the model is for L.A., and I'm not going to presume to say that The New York Times is the model for the Los Angeles Times; I'm not sure that the Chicago Tribune is the model for the Los Angeles Times, either.

But it just seems common sense to me that you can satisfy people's need to know what's going on in their own community and tell them what's going on in Washington and in Baghdad. It wasn't all that long ago that a lot of newspapers did that: They performed strong local journalism, but they sent a correspondent to the war in Vietnam, they had a guy in Jerusalem or a guy in London. ... It's not a terribly novel idea, that you can try to serve both. ...

What do you think of Dean Baquet and the fact that this whole controversy [about Baquet refusing to make staff cuts ordered by L.A. Times' parent the Tribune Company] broke out into public view and in the pages of the L.A. Times itself?

I should say that Dean's a friend; he's somebody I've worked with in the past, and somebody I admire immensely as a journalist. Again, I don't know whether the right size of the Los Angeles Times newsroom is 1,200 journalists or 900 journalists or 800 journalists or what it is, but I know in my gut that he picked the right fight, and the fight is over having journalists. If you're going to do good journalism, you have to have good journalists, whether you're going to do it on the Web or in print. ...

But now you're getting applications from the L.A. Times?

That's true, and that's partly, of course, because they lost Dean. And he is an inspirational leader, somebody that people love to work for. I know of specific people that we've tried to hire who would've loved to come to The New York Times but wanted to stay and work for Dean.

But it's partly because of the message that they have heard emanating from the Tribune Company, which is, we're thinking of a kind of different, smaller, cheaper, more profitable newspaper. Certainly the people who's biggest interest is writing national or international news have taken that as a kind of vote of no confidence. ...

Even after everything got public in the pages of the Los Angeles Times, [Baquet] gave a speech in New Orleans, where he urged editors to stand up to their publishers and to start pushing back on the issue of cuts in the newsroom.

I asked Dean to e-mail me a copy of it and I read it, and I think people have made too much of that. ... The speech was actually even-tempered. It was not, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it anymore." He wasn't urging people to rise up and revolt. ...

No. But he was saying that there's an unspoken anxiety amongst editors around the country, that they're being squeezed.

Well, of course there is. How could there not be? You look at what's happened in Philadelphia, what's happening in Baltimore, what's happening in -- well, now Los Angeles; a lot of places with storied newspapers with histories of really aggressive, impressive, prize-winning journalism, being hollowed out.

I'll tell you a couple of statistics that I've ran across lately, one of which I keep repeating at every opportunity. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, there were more than 1,000 foreign journalists in Iraq; today, there are fewer than 75. Now, I appreciate a lot that is because it's an incredibly dangerous place to work, but a lot of that is because newspapers are in retreat from covering complicated, foreign stories.

Throughout the coverage of the midterm elections, I was hearing from our reporters that the [campaign] buses were kind of empty, that on some of the major campaigns, even big papers in the states where the races were going on were not assigning the kind of reporting coverage that they would have in the past, that some of the major papers were telling their political reporters, "You have to clear it with us if you want to take an airplane somewhere." That isn't economy; that's suicide.

When I have an opportunity to talk to editors and publishers, I tell them this, that I think the gravest danger facing our business is not new technology or changing demographics or hostile administration in Washington or the blogosphere. The gravest danger facing our business is surrender, despair, panic. There's a lot of it going around. ...

Let me tell you what the Tribune Company's representatives said to me about this: They said this whole argument has become a soap opera in which it has been oversimplified into cuts or no cuts. What this is really about is, how do we survive in the future? The business model that existed at one time no longer exists. ...

Well, first of all, Dean had done [a] considerable amount of cutting. He reduced the size of the L.A. Times newsroom from around 1,200 to 900 and some. That's not exactly refusing to go along. And implicit in the notion that you're going to reinvent the news-gathering business model is that you're going to do news gathering. Who's going [to] gather that news? There's nothing more ridiculous than this notion that has taken hold that you can do good journalism without good journalists. It's silly. ...

Both Dean Baquet and the now-former publisher Jeff Johnson said to us that their first responsibility is to the readers, not to the shareholders. Are they being naive?

I think that's the way journalists have to think. Clearly the institution of a newspaper has responsibilities to both, ... but if you're an editor, you should wake up in the morning thinking about the reader. ...

Dean also said that Wall Street is his enemy. ... I guess what Dean was referring to is that [despite] the L.A. Times' billion dollars in revenue, over 200 million in profit, they don't like the idea that it looks like it's in decline. Same thing with The New York Times?

There is one way in which Wall Street, the concept, is inimical to journalism, and that is that Wall Street tends to be conducive to shorter-term thinking. ... That creates a lot of pressure on publishers and executives of newspaper companies to also think short-term, which is one reason I'm really happy to work for a company that has a little bit of insulation from the whims of Wall Street, by virtue of being controlled by a family. ...

We have two classes of stock. The functional control of the company rests in stock that belongs to the Sulzberger family, and they make the major decisions regarding what the budgets will be, what the investment will be, and so on. Obviously, they're not indifferent to the economics of the company, they think about that a lot. But they have the luxury of thinking over the longer term, and one result of that has been that in the past when there have been economic downturns The New York Times has often chosen those moments to invest rather than cut, knowing that when the cycle turned back and the marketplace recovered, we'd be in a stronger position. ...

But Wall Street has, and I'm thinking specifically of Morgan Stanley, has gone public, criticizing investment strategy of The New York Times, the way in which the company is run.

First of all, it's not Wall Street, and second of all, it's not Morgan Stanley. It's one investment fund within Morgan Stanley and one fund manager who has made this crusade. ... The one thing I can say from the newsroom point of view is I wake up every day grateful for the Sulzberger family. And the same thing would be true at some of the other major newspapers that have similar arrangements: The Washington Post, which is under the control of the Graham family; The Wall Street Journal under the Bancroft family; once upon a time, the L.A. Times under the Chandler family. All of these companies have run very sound, profitable businesses while sustaining that civic function of providing good journalism, and they've been able to do that because they didn't have to respond in a panic to every quarterly return. ...

But what they are saying is that ... the family ownership has a management in-house that is not producing enough capital given who they are, not enough profit given who they are and what they've got. They've made bad investments.

I guess I would just respond to a critic who makes that kind of charge: Show me your list of what you regard as the stellar examples of media companies, and then let's sit down and look at what they actually produce.

Meaning that they don't necessarily produce very good products?

Meaning the most profitable companies are not necessarily the ones that are producing something that you'd be proud to be associated with.

I interviewed the CEO of Google, and we were discussing Google's search engine and also Google News, and he offered that it has influenced the way newspapers, including The New York Times, write their headlines.

That's true. ... We actually have begun writing headlines for the website that will be more search-friendly. ... You can get a better ranking on Google if your headline is very clear about the subject, if you're not trying to be witty, but are trying to be specific. ...

Both Craig Newmark of craigslist and the CEO of Google, Mr. Schmidt, said they were chagrined over the fact that their business success has had a negative effect on the news-gathering business.

Largely because classified advertising has flowed in their direction, you mean?

Yeah. And advertising in general with Google.

That's true. In craigslist, though, it's mainly classified ads. I welcome their feeling of solidarity. ... Look, they're in business, and advertisers have to decide where they want to advertise. On the one hand, places like Google and craigslist have clearly bled some newspapers to the point where they may not survive. At the same time, they've also served as a kind of wake-up call to a lot of the newspaper business about how we have to do our business online, and that we have to get online. That our future is not just giving people quality journalism, but giving it to them how and when they want it. I think we're a lap or two ahead of most other newspapers, but most newspapers are on the track now towards thinking about what they put on the web as an integral part of their journalism, and not an afterthought. ...

Warren Buffet says that this is an industry in decline, that he does not recommend people invest, because, as others have also said, the decline in subscriptions and profitability is going to zero, ... and it's unclear that the move to the Internet will become profitable enough to sustain these organizations before it hits zero.

Right. I think that this is a business, and I mean the journalism business, that's in transition, or even upheaval, and it's unnerving and unsettling. But it's a business that tends to attract people who are pretty adaptable, the kind of people who can be parachuted into a strange place and pretty quickly find out what's going on. And I think a lot of that adaptability is now being employed in the service of figuring out how our business model adapts.

I think that's already happening. ... The New York Times, at the moment, it's the printed newspaper that pays most of the cost of my newsroom. But the digital side is coming awfully fast. The revenues there are growing at somewhere between 20 and 30 percent a year.

And at the same time, we're inventing new ways to make the digital side pay for itself. I feel a great deal of confidence that we will get there, at least some of us will. ... Some newspapers will die, but some of us will get there and will be healthy companies for a long, long time.

People like the Google, Yahoo, those organizations repurpose, basically, the information that you provide. Any sense that you'll ever get any economic relief from those who use your information and are making a lot of money?

We've had conversations with Yahoo; we've had conversations with Microsoft about ways that we could -- again, this is all still in the blue-sky stage -- find some common interest. But -- and I used to just recoil in horror from this expression -- we're content companies. That's what we do. We produce the very, very high quality of journalistic content. That's our strength. That's what we do that nobody else can do. Bloggers aren't going to replace that quality content. Shouting heads on cable TV aren't going to replace that, ... and RSS feeds and search engines aren't going to replace it. All of them feed off what we do. I think the market for that is going to survive and flourish. ...

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posted feb. 13, 2007

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