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The United States of America vs. Bill Keller

How hard is it to be executive editor of the New York Times today? The White House calls him a traitor. He gets roasted every day on talk shows and blogs. The newsroom is losing faith. The paper is shrinking. And the worst part is that fighting back means overcoming his own nature.

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Bill Keller, the executive editor of the New York Times, sat on a couch in the Oval Office of the White House, three feet from President George W. Bush, and listened.

For a meeting without historical precedent, the president of the United States had called the Times to the White House to personally try to prevent a state secret from appearing in print—an exposé of the National Security Agency’s efforts to monitor phone calls without court-approved warrants that the Times had held back on for over a year. Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. sat in a wing chair facing Bush, while Keller and Washington bureau chief Philip Taubman sat across from Bush’s lawyer, Harriet Miers, and national-security adviser Stephen Hadley. General Michael Hayden, the then-director of the National Security Agency, sat alongside Bush with a thick briefing book in his lap.

After stiff pleasantries, Bush issued an emphatic warning: If they revealed the secret program to the public and there was another terrorist attack on American soil, the Paper of Record would be implicated. “The basic message,” recalls Keller, “was, ‘You’ll have blood on your hands.’ ”

The meeting lasted an hour. Afterward, Sulzberger and Keller stood outside the White House. Undaunted by the president’s logic and his threats, Keller told Sulzberger, “Nothing I heard in there changed my mind.” Sulzberger agreed.

Eleven days after the meeting with Bush, the Times defied the president; the story, by James Risen and Eric Licht­blau, was headlined bush lets u.s. spy on callers without courts. That same day, the USA Patriot Act was blocked in the Senate.

The White House went into attack mode. Its target: Bill Keller and the New York Times.

The Times is as powerful a news organization, and media brand, as any on earth, but the cracks in its foundations have become disconcertingly visible. Of course, things could be much worse. A look at the papers in most other cities reveals what the Times might look like in a nightmare future: a bland, cowed publication with ads on its front page, sustained by auto guides and real-estate brochures. The distance between here and there, once comfortably vast, has shortened considerably as the newspaper finds its financial, legal, and journalistic powers under assault. The Times itself helped weaken the right of reporters to protect sources by taking Judith Miller’s tortured case to the steps of the Supreme Court and failing. The paper has been attacked by the president as “disgraceful” for publishing national-security secrets, the vice-president has led a chorus of conservative commentators impugning its patriotism, and a grand-jury probe of the NSA leak could bring yet more subpoenas for reporters. Conservative commentators have even urged the Justice Department to charge the paper under the Espionage Act, an unlikely but terrifying prospect that could mean jail time for Sulzberger and Keller and perhaps force the closure of the newspaper. Ominously, the Bush administration appears to have the support of the public; a national poll shows 54 percent of Americans in favor of wiretapping without warrants. There’s not a lot of enthusiasm for press freedom, either.

Meanwhile, the very business of selling newspapers is falling apart. The Web has gnawed away at the Times’ ad revenue, and as the cost of newsprint soars, the newspaper itself is literally shrinking: Next year, the Times will be 1.5 inches narrower, with 5 percent less space for news (not a huge loss, but a crushing metaphor). Under publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., whose family has operated the paper since 1896 and maintains majority ownership, the company’s shares have lost half their value since 2002, frustrating not only Wall Street but legions of stock-owning employees. While Sulzberger searches for new sources of revenue in what appears to be an ad hoc manner, he entrusts the editorial power to Bill Keller, who, famously, was not Sulzberger’s first choice to be in charge.

In 2001, in the months leading up to Joe Lelyveld’s retirement as executive editor, the paper’s highest editorial position, the then–­editorial-page editor Howell Raines had sold himself to Sulzberger as a revolutionary and painted Lelyveld (and, by association, his protégé Keller) as defending a newsroom full of “lifers, careerists, nerds, time- servers and drones” (this from Raines’s recent memoir). Raines advocated a ­hyperaggressive news culture, promising the business side of the newspaper that he could produce more bang for the paper’s buck by cracking the whip. Passing over Keller, the managing editor at the time, Sulz­berger gave Raines the job. But 21 months into his tenure, when reporter Jayson Blair admitted to faking news stories, Raines had so many enemies at the paper that he couldn’t survive the ensuing scandal.


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