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Keller Must Go

Back in April of this year, Anthony Lewis wrote a review-essay in The New York Review of Books on the decision by The New York Times to publish the Pentagon Papers. Discussing the impact of the papers' publication, Lewis quoted Harold Edgar and Benno Schmidt Jr. who had contributed an article to the volume Lewis was reviewing. Edgar and Schmidt wrote that the Times' publication of the papers showed that "much of the press was no longer willing to be merely an occasionally critical associate devoted to common aims, but intended to become an adversary threatening to discredit not only political dogma but also the motives of the nation's leaders."

Lewis then retraces familiar, but salient, details: Virtually every editor and national-affairs reporter at the paper pushed for publication. Columnist "Scotty" Reston vowed that if the Times backed down, he would publish the papers in the Vineyard Gazette, a weekly he owned on Martha's Vineyard. Publisher "Punch" Sulzberger, initially resistant to publication, relented under pressure from his editors. Then, when Attorney General John Mitchell informed Times editors that they had (in his view) violated the Espionage Act by publishing the first installment, Sulzberger, traveling in London, ordered that publication of the series continue. There was no doubt about what the Times should do.

The period in question can be romanticized, of course. Newspapers sometimes held back information for national-security reasons 30 years ago, and they will 30 years from now.

But the elder Sulzberger, the father of today's publisher, seems to have understood some things that have eluded his son. And Abe Rosenthal and Max Frankel, the editors who pushed to publish the papers, knew a few things that Bill Keller could stand to learn.

We don't have a full public accounting of why Keller (and presumably Sulzberger, since the publisher is almost invariably involved in huge editorial decisions) held the James Risen-Eric Lichtblau spying story for a year. They may have had good reasons. And, we don't have a full public accounting of why the paper ran the story when it finally did. Two sources inside the paper told a Los Angeles Times reporter that the main consideration was the impending release of Risen's book—that the paper would be awfully embarrassed if this big news broke in a book by one of its reporters rather than in the paper itself (I've heard there's a lot more good stuff in the book, by the bye).

There are reasons for liberals (at opinion magazines, at blogs, etc.) to tread a little carefully these days with regard to criticism of the Times. Those of us who work at smaller shops don't appreciate how difficult it can be to run large institutions (here at TAP, we sometime have trouble running this institution, of 20-whatever people). The pressure of simply being The New York Times is enormous. And, of course, every piece of flesh ripped from the paper's body by the liberal opinion-blog world serves, ultimately, as another plate of hot victuals for the vultures of the right, circling above, counting the hours until the newspaper of record is a flayed, and inconsequential, carcass.

So I write in this spirit: The country needs The New York Times. A Times of aggressive journalism, integrity, and especially transparency is essential—seriously—to American democracy. And that's exactly why the Times no longer needs Bill Keller—and maybe should be reconsidering the filial inheritance of its publisher, too.

Judith Miller was bad enough. Keller's two crucial admissions in his letter to his colleagues about the Miller affair—that a year passed before he "got around" to dealing with a controversy that was swirling inside the paper, and that he didn't think or have the gumption to ask Miller questions about her source-reporter relationship with Scooter Libby—were unforgivable lapses for the person at the top. Let's say one of my reporters was out peddling falsehoods about a matter of war and peace for a year. Another of my reporters came to me and said, "Reporter X is printing untrue stuff about a very consequential matter." And I spent a year—a year!—avoiding it. I wouldn't even let my board members fire me. I'd resign before they could. But I wouldn't avoid it for a year, because the notion that any editor would do that is beyond inconceivable—except that one did.

Now we come to Risen and Lichtblau. Forget whether the paper held the story until after the election. That's a partisan question, not a journalistic one: It's not the job of the reporters and editors of the Times to win or lose elections for anyone. The journalistic question is whether Keller and others at the Times were intimidated. The answer, or at least one answer, seems quite clearly to be that they were. And one prays that they're not delusional enough to be sitting around today telling themselves that they were courageous to publish after George W. Bush hauled them into the Oval Office earlier this month, as Jonathan Alter reported. A mere meeting with the president is supposed to intimidate the leaders of the world's greatest newspaper? Thirty-four years ago, their predecessors were essentially threatened with jail time by the Nixon White House. But they understood their responsibility.

These must be awful times at the Times. The paper just lost one of its best Washington reporters, Todd Purdum, to Vanity Fair. I knew Todd 15 years ago, back when he was working in, and I was frequently skulking around, Room 9, the press room at New York's City Hall. I haven't talked to him and have no idea whether the paper's troubles have a thing to do with his departure. But I do know that it's unusual for the paper of record to lose a serious news reporter to a glossy (but very good) magazine—David Margolick is the only one I can think of off the top of my head—and I just wonder how many other excellent Times reporters might be looking around.

The Trust is the name of a magisterial history of the Times by Alex S. Jones and Susan E. Tifft. And a trust is what The New York Times is. No, not for liberals; for everyone who is engaged in the debate about our country's future and who thinks that the press has an irrefutable responsibility to check government power. This second criterion excludes most movement conservatives, but it need not exclude more traditional conservatives. And it obviously includes the Times' trustees, who should be wondering now whether the paper's leadership is worthy anymore of its great staff.

Michael Tomasky is the Prospect executive editor.
By Michael Tomasky
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved