THE BLOG
12/28/2005 01:41 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

"I'm Not Going to Talk About the Back Story."

Bill Keller is a "watch our pages" man. That is how he would prefer to answer your question about the Times, whether you are a reader in Chelsea, a reporter for Salon, or Charlie Rose. With Keller the stoic conceit continues, but under conditions of greater transparency it makes a lot less sense...

You can find the latest on the transparency gap at the New York Times by reading Editor & Publisher, and Salon (where I am quoted.) The facts so far: On Dec. 15, the Times published an important story that hit official Washington hard: Bush Secretly Lifted Some Limits on Spying in U.S. It said that the National Security Agency has since 2002 had the authority to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States without a warrant because President Bush decreed it. The story is based on confidential sources.

"Without a warrant" prompted Senator Arlen Specter to promise hearings in the Senate, and outraged others in Congress. "There is no doubt that this is inappropriate," Specter said. Questions immediately arose about how the story came to be, and especially why it appeared now. (Days before a vote on the USA Patriot Act, the same day as the elections for parliament in Iraq.) But also: should any newspaper be revealing secret programs intended to stop another terror strike? The Times did not take the lead in addressing those questions. In fact it said very little, so others began to fill in the picture.

On Dec. 17 Paul Farhi of the Washington Post reported that the revelations about the NSA are in a forthcoming book, "State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration," by James Risen, the lead reporter on the wiretapping story. The Times account hadn't mentioned that.

On Dec. 20, James Rainey of the Los Angeles Times reported that "editors at the paper were actively considering running the story about the wiretaps before Bush's November showdown with Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts." The Times and Keller had said the key facts became known "a year ago." Writers at the Times who talked to Risen--alas, no names--said that was inaccurate. NPR also had the same information.

On Dec. 20, it was reported by Newsweek's Jonathan Alter that "the president was so desperate to kill The New York Times’ eavesdropping story, he summoned the paper’s editor and publisher to the Oval Office." A significant fact, adding drama and raising the political stakes. The original had said only, "The White House asked The New York Times not to publish this article."

Then Gabriel Sherman of the New York Observer reported on Dec. 21 that "according to multiple Times sources, the decision to move forward with the story was accelerated by the forthcoming publication of Mr. Risen’s book." Sherman added the date of Bush's meeting with Times bosses--Dec. 6--and said Washington bureau chief Phil Taubman was there too.

In each case it appears the New York Times knew the news, but withheld it. Sherman wrote that discussion of the wiretap story "has been off-limits since it was published." A source in the Washington bureau was quoted: "Someone on high told reporters not to talk about it." Why? We don't know. Heavyweights in journalism can't figure it out. I certainly can't. And the newspaper won't say much.

The Times did issue a statement from Keller on Dec. 16, the day after the story was published on the Web. It told part of the history. The paper was initally persuaded not to publish on national security grounds. The Administration said: if you run this story, it will harm intelligence collection; also, nobody who knows the facts doubts that we're legal. Keller said further reporting convinced the Times that it could publish without harm to national security, and that reservations about warrantless espionage by the NSA were felt in many parts of the government.

In this statement Keller began to make a case for the soundness of Times judgment (which includes the slowness of Times judgment) but it was brief, nothing but a down payment on a full defense of the article and the reasoning behind it. And Keller's statement had none of the facts later uncovered by Farhi, Rainey, Alter, and Sherman.

"The publication was not timed to the Iraqi election, the Patriot Act debate, Jim's forthcoming book or any other event," Keller told the L.A. Times in second statement. "We published the story when we did because after much hard work it was fully reported, checked and ready, and because, after listening respectfully to the administration's objections, we were convinced there was no good reason not to publish it." The Observer's account contains this:

After The Times decided not to publish it at that time, Mr. Risen went away on book leave, and his piece was shelved and regarded as dead, according to a Times source.

“I’m not going to talk about the back story to the story,” Mr. Keller said by phone on Dec. 20. “Maybe another time and another subject.”

The back story? I know what he means, but it's hard to call it a "back story" when the president of the United States confronts the publisher of the New York Times over freedom of the press, national security, and possibly another leak investigation. (Bush later said the disclosures were "shameful.")

Obviously there are things the Times learned that it cannot tell us about the NSA, and about its conflicts with the Administration. This may account for some of the silences and gaps. (See Howard Kurtz's column, Dec. 26.) But what Keller, and his crew, and Sulzberger with his ally Catherine Mathis (Times spokeswoman) don't seem to get is that the Times could signal to readers when it knows it's not leveling with us.

"When you think of the New York Times, transparency is not the first quality that leaps to mind, but they have to explain themselves," said Tom Kunkel, dean of the J-school at University of Maryland and a former newspaper editor. "Even if you can't tell them something, in my experience news consumers always appreciate it when you make an effort to explain why you can't."

I'm sure there's a story to this chronic lack of transparency at the Times. At least part of it is a matter of public record. In May, 2005, deputy managing editor Al Siegal led a committee of Times people--heavily weighted toward the Washington bureau--who examined ways of "preserving our readers' trust." It was an attempt to come to grips with credibility problems the Times itself had identified after going over the crash sites: Wen Ho Lee, Jayson Blair, the Howell Raines regime, the WMD story-- but not yet the fall of Judy Miller.

The report (available as a pdf file) was called Preserving Our Readers' Trust: A Report to the Executive Editor. (That would be Keller.) News accounts about it focused on confidential sources, and the rules governing their use, but an equally powerful theme was transparency-- and how to create a "dialogue with our publics."

Listen to these recommendations from twenty of Keller's best people-- the Credibility Group:

* "First, there is much the paper can do to consolidate its readers’ trust. We start with being more open and forthcoming."

That really hasn't happened. And so the "consolidation of trust" isn't happening, either.

* "Explaining ourselves actively and earnestly to our various publics can only strengthen the bond between the Times and its loyal readers."

Actively and earnestly means you don't treat the demand for explanation as a threat, an option, or something to do only in a generous mood. It means you explain willingly so people know how you operate. If they know how you operate they can more easily decide to trust you.

The Times is hardly clueless about this, as Farhad Manjoo pointed out in Salon. Just last week, Kurt Eichenwald wrote a "Reporter"s Essay," a companion to his investigation of Webcam porn and kids. It's an explainer for his complicated interactions with Justin, the exploited teen he wrote about and helped.

Anyone who pays attention to American politics could predict that a story based on leaks about a classified program the president wanted would get intense scrutiny and probably come under attack. And on Dec. 17, Texas Republican John Cornyn denounced the Times on the floor of the Senate: "It's perhaps not a coincidence that just before the vote for the cloture on the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, the New York Times released this story." Cornyn also said the Times was trying to push Risen's book. (See David Folkenflik's report for NPR.)

But with "Bush Secretly Lifted" there was no Eichenwald-style explainer, just one paragraph:

The White House asked The New York Times not to publish this article, arguing that it could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be terrorists that they might be under scrutiny. After meeting with senior administration officials to hear their concerns, the newspaper delayed publication for a year to conduct additional reporting. Some information that administration officials argued could be useful to terrorists has been omitted.

Alex Jones, a former reporter for the Times, and a biographer of the ruling family, noticed it. "It's as though there are two Times minds at work here," he told Salon. The first is stoic, and hostile to "meta" communication, which in this view detracts from the primary work. Traditionally (that is to say up until the ground shifted beneath them a few years ago) the editors of the New York Times tried not to talk about the New York Times, or indeed to "notice" it, and you saw little in the way of self-examination. It just came out with more journalism.

In that era, the ideal answer to any question about faulty reporting or editorial priorities was: watch the paper. Don't ask us to talk about it; we'll just give you non-replies. In Ken Auletta's recent New Yorker profile of Sulzberger, he quotes Keller at a November staff meeting saying he was concerned about "orgies of self-absorption that distract us from our more important work." That being open about decision-making counts as newsroom narcissism is also part of the stoic view.

Bill Keller is a "watch our pages" man. That is how he would prefer to answer your question about the Times, whether you are a reader in Chelsea, a reporter for Salon, or Charlie Rose calling. With him the stoic conceit continues, but under conditions of greater transparency it makes a lot less sense. This is what the leaks from his own newsroom are telling him.

The Times of the 21st century does talk about itself... sometimes. (A famous example.) This is what Jones meant by two minds. It knows how to run an explainer laying out Kurt Eichenwald's dealings with sources, and opening up for examination--and criticism--the ethical calls he made. But then on other occasions, with higher stakes, it "forgets" it knows how to be self-scrutinizing and goes back to the era of "the Times doesn't talk about itself."

In fact, the golden age of self-examination at the New York Times began in 2000 and is still going on. But something is wrong in the execution. Which is why PressThink ran Ron Brynaert's guest post: Does the New York Times Have a Learning Disability? (Oct. 31)

* "The executive editor and the two managing editors should share responsibility for writing a column that deals broadly with matters about the newspaper. The column should appear regularly in a fixed spot, ideally every other week and perhaps on Page 2 of the Week in Review or alternating with the Public Editor in his space."

This column by the top of the masthead never happened. And as a result Keller's preferred method of addressing Times readers about matters of public controversy is the leaked memo to staff that finds it way to Romenesko within ten minutes of his pushing send, and then becomes news. Why he has chosen this method is not clear to me. Twenty of his best people told him in May 2005 that he and his team should be alternating with the public editor, in a column that spoke directly to the issues of trust, openness and authority that so vex the Times today. Such a forum would have been very useful in the summer and fall of 2005.

* "The newsroom should establish a coherent, flexible system for evaluating public attacks on our work and determining whether they require a public response, and in what form."

This was political realism by the Credibility Group. They wanted to do away with the pretense that "the work speaks for itself." (Therefore you shouldn't talk about it.) The Group said it straight out: "We strongly believe it is no longer sufficient to argue reflexively that our work speaks for itself. In today’s media environment, such a minimal response damages our credibility. Critics, competitors and partisans can too easily caricature who we are and what we do. And loyal readers gain no solid understanding of what the truth really is." But this strong belief--backed by a sharp analysis--was not enough to move Keller, Sulzberger and Mathis.

* "Nytimes.com should conduct frequent Q & A forums with department heads and other senior editors."

Didn't happen. The Washington Post does 30-35 live discussions a week: Q & A with editors who oversee coverage, reporters who cover the news, and columnists like Dan Froomkin and Dana Milbank. This innovation hasn't come to the Times.

* "Explore the possibility of creating a Times blog that promotes a give-and-take with readers while satisfying the standards of our journalism."

Didn't happen. The post.blog was able to air the controversy involving Dan Froomkin and John Harris, and it gave readers a place to talk back to the Post with a vengeance. A Times blog would be equally valuable on occasions when there is controversy about the Times-- although it has to be done carefully. Instead there's this.

* "The newspaper should improve our interaction with television and radio programs. We should devise a strategy governing when and where it makes sense for us to be on TV and radio."

That means Keller does "Newshour" on PBS the day after the wiretapping story is released, and brings the reporters with him on "Charlie Rose" the same night, while others well briefed--investigations editor David Barstow, Washington bureau chief Phil Taubman--head to "Nightline" and "Larry King." The works speaks, and then you speak for it. It has authority because you respond with authority when asked tough questions about judgment calls.

* "We need to be more assertive about explaining ourselves — our decisions, our methods, our values, how we operate. We need to do this with regularity and in a variety of forums. We particularly need to do this at times when we are not under attack."

Don't heal yourself, just hear yourself, New York Times. "With regularity." "Variety of forums." "More assertive about explaining."

* "We fully accept that there are those who love to hate The Times. Though there may be no dissuading them, often there is value in engaging with more open-minded critics."

If you don't have online Q and A's, and you don't go on the air to explain, and you don't answer reporters questions, and you don't have a blog where you can discuss it, and you don't want to go into the back story because that wouldn't be stoic... then how is engagement with open-minded critics going to ever take place? In soundbites and one-paragraph faxes and Eric Lichtblau telling Salon, "I'm afraid we're referring all calls to Catherine Mathis in corporate PR..."? Not likely.

It's tempting for Times people to say: no matter what we say, we are going to get slammed by the left and the right. But that's an excuse for devaluing all criticsm. The Credibility Group grasped how lame that was. (But Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times does not, as this column shows.)

* "Productive communication is certainly possible with a much larger body of people — readers and nonreaders alike — whose opinions of The Times are not so fixed. We should focus our efforts on them, with the goal of making it far easier for them to see more than unanswered attacks on our ethics and professionalism."

Hear, hear.

The modern era of transparency at the Times began with a curiosity, an editor"s note (called an "assessment") about the coverage of Wen Ho Lee that took note of certain problems and regrets. (See PressThink, From Wen Ho Lee to Judy Miller.) It was a strained performance for those accustomed to the luxury of "we don't talk about ourselves." Among those who had to talk about the editor's note--an unprecedented revision in a pattern of coverage--was Bill Keller, then the managing editor. Here's what he told a New York Observer reporter who had asked about after-effects:

If you mean, are we going to back away from aggressive investigative reporting, the answer is an emphatic, categorical ‘No.’ If you mean are we going to select a scapegoat to hang for shortcomings in a generally excellent body of reporting, the answer is an equally emphatic ‘No.’ Beyond that, your answer will be in the paper. Watch our journalism.

Watch our journalism worked in its day. But for capturing what was wrong with "we don't talk about the Times," the better source is reporter Jeff Gerth, who wrote a lot of the Wen Ho Lee stories that were assessed. Gerth said to Howard Kurtz, who wanted to know what he thought about the editor's note: "I don’t talk about the Times’ business, but as a reporter I’m glad that other people talk about theirs."

I don't think there's any future for an attitude like that. People don't trust its one-wayness. If the Times can't learn to converse its troubles are going to get worse.
Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York University. His weblog is PressThink. Some related posts:

Fortress Journalism Failed. The Transparent Newsroom Works. (Nov. 23, 2005)


Does the New York Times Have a Learning Disability
? (Oct. 31, 2005)

The Shimmer: Missing Data at the New York Times (Oct. 10, 2005)