When last we checked in, Wall Street Journal editor Robert Thomson had used a column by Times columnist David Carr that was critical of the Journal under Rupert Murdoch to pick a fight with Times executive editor Bill Keller over an old incident, one he'd clearly been bottling up, by releasing a statement saying that "among other things" Keller had written a letter to "a prize committee" last year "casting aspersions on Journal journalists and journalism." At the time, Thomson didn't elaborate on which prize committee that was and what the letter said, and appeared to be satisfied with his "Nicole knows what she did" approach to the matter.
But the Observer was not. Last night, they uncovered the letter written by Keller and addressed to said prize committee (It was the George Polk Awards, not the prestigious John Murphy Award for Excellence in Copy Editing, as we'd suspected) regarding an award given to the Journal for an article about issues surrounding the Three Gorges Dam in China. As it turns out, Keller was actually quibbling with a press release promoting the award, which he sees as giving undue credit to the Journal for changing the policy of the Chinese toward the relocation of residents surrounding the dam.
In his letter to the committee, Keller acknowledges his own self-interest.
We acknowledge that we call attention to it in part because it involves an entry that competed with one of ours. We don't know what action it might require on your part. But we feel compelled to bring it to your attention because of the esteem in which we hold the Polks.
A bit brownnosy, but not terribly offensive. Except to the Journal, of course. Today they sent the Observer a copy of a fiery letter then-WSJ executive editor Marcus Brauchli wrote to the committee defending his paper. "Mr. Keller challenges the accuracy of your press release and, by implication, our reporting," Brauchli says, then goes on to accuse the Times of piggybacking on the Journal's reporting, failing to report basic information, and trying to mess up their chances at the Pulitzer. Here's a bit:
On Nov. 27, several weeks after our story ran, Chinese cabinet officials held a press conference in which they defended the dam, even as they acknowledged rising costs to address its environmental impact. The Wall Street Journal and the Times both filed pieces on the government response. The Journal included the official's assertion that the additional relocations were not related to the dam. The Times chose not to include that denial in its story, or to address the issue of the resettlements at all.
This worked Bill Keller's nerves, apparently, because then he sent the Observer a statement. "First, I don't think the Journal can blame me for its recent Pulitzer drought," he began. Burn.
"Since the letter is now in the public domain, it should be clear to everyone that it challenged a Polk press release for (in our view) overstating the impact of the Journal's series," he wrote. "It did not 'disparage' or 'cast aspersions' on the series itself, which many of us at The Times admired as an example of the in-depth reporting the Journal used to do with some regularity."
Double, triple, bringing-it-back-to-the-beginning burn. Surely, Rupert Murdoch's Journal, if you will, is going to have a response to that. We have to say, journalism hasn't been this exciting in years. A part of us wonders if the old buggers are faking it, The Wrestler–style, in order to get people's attention. Everyone at the Journal: Please hide your staplers. We don't want anyone to fight to the death here.