Bill Keller Knows Why the Oxpecker Sings

An interview with former New York Times editor Bill Keller.

Bill Keller, former executive editor at the New York Times Co.

Photograph by Andrew Herrer/Bloomberg

The last question I asked Bill Keller was: Who would you rather have dinner with, Arianna Huffington or Vladimir Putin?

“I’d get a better story out of Putin,” Keller said. “Although I love Arianna dearly.”

He probably doesn’t (see exhibit A), but rather considers the eponymous Web doyenne an oxpecker, a bird that lives on the backs of bona-fide animals and eats their ticks. (Keller is comfortable using the term; see exhibit B.)

No longer the top editor of The New York Times, Keller is now editor of The Marshall Project, a startup journalism website that reports on criminal justice. It will begin sometime in November, and will include a daily newsletter that in his words will be “part aggregation, news and comment on criminal justice around the country, and part original content.”

On Wednesday night, Keller and three other panelists talked about reforming the criminal justice system at a soiree organized by the NationSwell Council, a membership network of innovators under the umbrella of a website that combines Upworthy-style journalism with a rallying cry to become involved with causes.

“I don’t want to sound like an NPR fundraiser, but go to our website and click on the donate button,” Keller implored the Manhattan do-gooders. Afterwards, we sat in a room for a half-hour and did “the interview.” Here’s an edited, condensed transcript of what he said, in order of what’s most likely to get aggregated:

(Disclosures: I wrote a few stories for NationSwell last year, and I wrote for the Times in April and was an intern on the copy desk in 2009 where I edited this story by Keller from Iran.)

Was sitting on the NSA-eavesdropping story the most controversial thing you did as editor of the Times?

“Yeah, probably, because I got it from both sides. I got it from the left for holding the story for more than a year, and I got it from the right for running the story. … If I had known in 2004 what I knew in 2005, I would have run the story sooner. But I didn’t know in 2004 what I knew in 2005.”

What’s Jill Abramson up to with Steven Brill?

“Jill’s a friend. We keep in touch. But I don’t know anything more about it than what she said in that interview.”

Was the reporting on what was happening between her and Dean Baquet obnoxious?

“Yes. Although I have to say that for a company whose business is communications, sometimes the Times does a pretty piss-poor job about communicating about itself. And that’s not unique to the Times. … Maybe it’s just because journalists tend to be skeptical of PR and so they’re just not very good at it.”

Which was more enjoyable to deal with: the Bush White House or the Obama White House?

(19-second pause)

“The Obama administration was less ideological and more pragmatic, the obvious case being the WikiLeaks stuff, which they hated. The State Department especially… They really hated it, but they behaved in a fairly pragmatic and mature way. They said, ‘We know you’re gonna run with this stuff; we know we can’t stop you. At the very least, hear us out so that we can make a case that there’s some stuff you should either withhold or handle with real delicacy.’ In the end, we ended up leaving out names of people who were just innocent informants of the U.S. government who talked to a diplomat in China or somewhere that could get in trouble or get imprisoned. …

"Whereas the Bush White House, my main experience with the NSA stuff was, ‘If you run this stuff, A) you will put lives at risk, and B) we will denounce you for treason.’ And that was kind of their default position.

"On the other hand, just in terms of how they deal with reporters who just have interesting leaks, you know, by the numbers the Obama administration has been more aggressively anti-whistleblower, anti-leak, than all the previous administrations put together. And some of that, I think, is because Democrats have to be a little more hard-line to prove–they have to be a little more Catholic than the pope.”

John Oliver preached about the American prison system in July. How hilarious was that?

“I thought it was absolutely hilarious. And brilliant. You know, in a funny way, it seems like it takes Brits or non-Americans to really appreciate how bizarre our criminal justice system is. … Between [Louis Theroux] and John Oliver, we’ve gotten sort of more enlightenment about the sad state of our prisons from Brits than from Americans.”

The Marshall Project is a journalism outfit, and it has a specific mission or purpose. But it’s not advocacy, right?

“Was Watergate advocacy? Woodward and Bernstein and The Washington Post understood there was something really rotten going on in the Nixon administration. And that didn’t make them Democrats or Libertarians or left-wingers or right-wingers. It just made them journalists. … When you look at a system that is not living up to its own standards, and you report on that, that’s not partisan or ideological. That’s just journalism.”

Why are a bunch of editors in old media leaving for the brave new world of new media?

“It’s different for different people. For some people, the allure is just the challenge of starting something new, seeing if you can reinvent the business model of media. For some people, it’s more a kind of sense of mission about a particular thing that they want to do. For some of them, it’s a kind of sense of resignation that the traditional media are inevitably going to die, and they want to be some place that’s alive.”

So do you think the Times is going to die?

“No, I don’t. I think a lot of places are doomed. But I think The New York Times—places that have adapted will stand a good chance of surviving all the trauma. Places that have well-to-do sponsors … if Jeff Bezos really means what he says about journalism, The Washington Post is in good hands. If Pierre Omidyar keeps pumping money into journalism, that’s a great thing. If Mike Bloomberg thinks that journalism is something worth investing his money in, that’s a good thing.”

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