One of the most revered and despised figures in American journalism came to campus Monday.
As a self-proclaimed chew toy for both the right and left sides of the political spectrum,
Bill Keller is constantly trying to reconcile his obligation to inform the public with the responsibility to protect it.
Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times, spoke at the Law School’s Honigman Auditorium. His lecture, titled “Editors in Chains,” was the sixteenth annual Davis, Market, Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom lecture, organized by the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs.
“Newspaper editors do not like to become a part of the stories they report,” University President Mary Sue Coleman said in her introduction for Keller.
But Keller and his newspaper have been forced into the public eye for their decision to publish reports of the Bush Administration’s use of warrantless surveillance and monitoring of bank accounts – two highly classified programs.
The Bush Administration’s extreme secrecy has strained the relationship between the White House and the press, making it the most abrasive it has been since the Vietnam War, Keller said.
Keller said the government wants its accomplishments broadcast and its embarassments stifled.
“Government officials want it both ways,” he said. “They want us to protect their secrets and they want us to trumpet their successes.”
Keller said he held the article about the eavesdropping program for more than a year after the 2004 presidential election upon the urging of the White House.
“When we exercise restraint, few people are aware,” he said.
President Bush urged Keller in a private meeting in the Oval Office to not publish the report. Bush told him the responsibility for the next terrorist attack would lie with The New York Times.
Some speculate that if they had rushed that information into print before the 2004 elections, the outcome might have been different. Keller said he doubts that.
One of Keller’s greatest critics may be Bush himself, who called the Times’s decision to print the story “disgraceful.” Vice President Dick Cheney referred to it as “disturbing.”
But criticism comes from the left as well, which was highlighted during the question-and-answer session following the lecture.
One speaker – a staff member of the World Socialist Website – berated Keller for “suppressing” information from an epidemiological study by Johns Hopkins University that estimated the death count in Iraq at 600,000 people.
Another speaker, Barry Gray, the website’s editor, accused Keller of misleading the American public about the pretenses for the Iraq war.
Keller denied that the Times suppressed information regarding the death toll in Iraq.
“If by suppression you mean publishing a story that must have been about a thousand words in the newspaper, than you have a very different definition of suppression than I’ve ever heard,” Keller replied.
Keller admitted that the American media’s coverage leading up to Iraq was imperfect and overly credulous. But he also said newspapers have the advantage of being able to correct errors and improve coverage with each new paper.
“There is no magic formula,” Keller said. “We make our best considerate judgment.”
Keller has also experienced strife outside of the newsroom.
He traveled to Iraq this May and experienced firsthand the dangers of reporting from post-invasion Baghdad.
“Baghdad is an unnerving city, where every traffic jam seems like a death trap and every conversation seems to turn to contemplations of danger,” he said.
Keller’s trip included a visit with the widow and three small children of an Iraqi Times journalist from Basra who was recently murdered.
“Although we record what we see whether it’s pleasing or not, we are not indifferent,” Keller said.
He told the story of Fakher Haider, a stringer for the Times who in 2005 was dragged from his home by men in police uniforms and executed.
“(It was) almost certainly for his reporting on the corruption in the police force,” he said.
Keller said what affected him most about his trip was talking with some of the 80 members of the Iraqi staff still working for the Times.
Most are stringers – Iraqi correspondents who work around the country in areas deemed too dangerous for Westerners. Other employees include security, translators and support staff.
“They take their lives in their hands when they come to work,” he said.