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NYT’s Bill Keller: Media impartiality is an aspiration, not a discipline - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Bill Keller, journalist and former executive editor of The New York Times. (Reuters/Phil McCarten)

Bill Keller, journalist and former executive editor of The New York Times. (Reuters/Phil McCarten)

Washington, DC, Asharq Al-Awsat—The decline of American print journalism has led to both lamentation and speculation as to what will follow it. Among the best-placed observers of this trend has been the veteran journalist Bill Keller.

During his three decade-career at the New York Times, he has won the coveted Pulitzer Prize, documented the collapse of the Soviet Union as a correspondent in Moscow, reported from Johannesburg during the collapse of apartheid, and served as executive editor of the paper from 2003 to 2011.

He spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat on the eve of his departure from the paper, before he begins a new job as editor-in-chief of a not-for-profit title focusing on the US criminal justice system. “It’s a chance to build something from scratch, which I’ve never done before,” Keller said, “and to use all the tools that digital technology offers journalists in terms of ways to investigate and to present on a subject that really matters personally.”

Asharq Al-Awsat: What are the differences between being an executive editor, a columnist, and now your new role?

Bill Keller: As executive editor I had ultimate responsibility for more than 1,100 journalists, covering everything from foreign affairs to domestic politics, to business, to science, to culture, to fashion, to sports. Obviously most of the work was delegated to other people. A newsroom is a huge collaboration. My role was to oversee hiring and deployment, to resolve crises, to keep high standards of accuracy and fairness and—because I got the job when the journalism world was changing—to adapt a print newspaper to a digital age.

My current job is to write a weekly, expanded essay for the opinion pages—which, in our tradition, are completely separate from the news pages. And my new job at the Marshall Project, beginning in March, is to create an online journalistic venture that will focus on the criminal justice system in the US.

I’ve been a journalist for 44 years and I’ve had a lot of jobs, but so far I have always had the security of a strong journalistic institution [behind me]. Or at least, they seemed strong at the time.

The New York Times remains strong, but one of my earlier employers, the Dallas Times-Herald, was bought up by a competing newspaper and promptly closed, and another, the Oregonian, has cut its staff drastically.

The main thing that is new about the Marshall Project is that it is a startup. I have to build it—help raise the money, hire the staff, oversee the creation of a digital news organization and run it. That’s tremendously exciting and a little bit scary; because it’s possible we will fail.

The other thing that’s new is that it is not a general interest publication like the Times, which covers all aspects of the news, but is focused specifically on one subject. It’s a very large and important subject, but it is more specialized.

Q: You are moving from a commercial operation to one run by a non-governmental agency. Is it fair to say that for-profit journalism never was and never will be impartial? Can not-for-profit journalism really be different?

Impartiality is an aspiration, a discipline. To me, it means you define your job this way: I’m not here to tell you what I believe, nor to tell you what you should believe, but to provide you with enough verifiable news and a range of arguments so that you can make an intelligent and independent judgment about what you believe.

Every journalist has opinions about lots of things, but just as judges are supposed to set aside their prejudices and follow the law, journalists can be expected to set aside their prejudices and follow the facts.

Do personal opinions sometimes creep into news stories? Of course. News organizations are run by human beings, not angels. But the best news organizations have a culture of impartiality and editors to help enforce it, and they do a pretty good job. I don’t think it makes a difference in impartiality whether a news organization is supported by advertisers and subscribers or by philanthropists.

The important thing is to create a culture and an organizational structure that insulates journalists from the influence of any particular interests. The New York Times is supported by a mix of reader subscriptions and advertisers. National Public Radio is supported by donors. Both, I think, do a pretty good job of playing it straight.

Q: How do you see Internet journalism in, say, 10 years?

I’m not a futurist, but I expect Internet journalism in 10 years will be a spectrum, a diversity. It will include strong, opinionated advocacy journalism like Glenn Greenwald’s [an American journalist, lawyer, columnist and author], coming from every point of view. Which, by the way, I read with great interest.

The future’s Internet journalism will also include evolved versions of major news organizations like The Times, which will continue to offer as clear and accurate an account as possible of events and their consequences.

Q: You wrote the following about Bradley Manning, the US soldier who was convicted in 2013 of leaking the largest set of US classified documents to date: “What if [Manning] had succeeded in delivering his pilfered documents to The Times? What would be different, for Manning and the rest of us?” Are Manning, Greenwald, the National Security Agency’s leaker Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange the “real journalists,” because they have taken bigger risks and sacrificed more, in general, than most journalists?

Manning and Snowden have never claimed to be journalists. You can call them leakers or whistleblowers or dissidents, but they are insiders who defied their employers, not journalists, who are by definition outsiders.

Greenwald is very much a journalist, of the advocacy type. Assange has never quite made up his mind what he is, but I have always argued that as an outsider who publishes information he should be entitled to the same constitutional protections that apply to the New York Times.

I respect courage, but I don’t think Greenwald and Assange are somehow more “real journalists” than those who cover protests in Cairo or Kiev, those who cover wars or those who take no physical risks but dig out truth that powerful governments and institutions would prefer to keep secret.

During my time as executive editor I had colleagues kidnapped, arrested, wounded and killed trying to witness events and tell the truth. I regard them as “real journalists.”

Q: You criticized the shrinking of US media presence overseas, despite the fact that, as you said, it is “our fastest-growing audience is the world.” Would it be fair to say that the implied reason for this is US condescension—if not disrespect—towards the world?

I think the main reason so many news organizations have cut international coverage is that it is expensive, and they believe, wrongly, that Americans aren’t interested. Americans, and especially American politicians, can sometimes sound condescending or arrogant, and there is an isolationist streak in our history.

I’m not sure which is worse, those who believe America should use force to intervene everywhere in the world, or those who want to wall us off from the world. But you should not believe that the cartoon of the “ugly American,” ignorant and disrespectful, tells the whole story. Many, many Americans invest in the wider world, travel there, study there, do business there and care deeply about our relationship to the rest of the globe.