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The United States of America vs. Bill Keller

Keller's Triangle
Executive Editor Bill Keller’s major relationships inside the Times.

THE SIDEKICK Not originally close to Keller, Managing Editor Jill Abramson (left) has become the enforcer in the newsroom and is also asserting herself in Washington.

THE OLD FRIEND Keller is under increasing pressure to embolden the paper’s Washington bureau, which, under the leadership of Philip Taubman (center), his pal from their Moscow days, has been considered weak and uneven.

THE BOSS Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. (right) and Keller grew closer after enduring the Judy Miller legal mess together. Many in the newsroom believe Keller too easily capitulates to business-side demands.

So after a two-month return stint by Lelyveld in the spring of 2003, Sulzberger tapped Keller, in a move widely thought to be orchestrated by his mentor. Sulzberger may have been cornered, but the choice restored order to the newsroom. Keller was the anti- Howell, stable and strikingly inoffensive, the beta to Raines’s alpha. In his first speech to the staff, Keller signaled a downshift, urging reporters to spend more time with their families, assuring people close to Raines that they needn’t fear petty reprisals. His primary mode of communication, even with people who sat within sight of his office, was e-mail. Ushering in an era of transparency and nonconfrontation, he dubbed his biannual Q&A sessions with reporters “Throw Things at Bill.” He was surprised to discover just how defeated the newsroom was. In the daily page-one meetings, Keller says, he would “throw something out on the table expecting people to tear it apart, and everybody would wait quietly and look around and wait to hear what I thought. They were expecting me to tell them what the right answer was.”

“I think Howell’s view of leadership is martial, it’s Robert E. Lee, it’s Bear Bryant,” he says. “And mine is more paterfamilias, I guess. You are dependent on this huge reservoir of talent, and your job is to create the circumstances under which they can do their best work, to reward them when they do well, correct them when they do wrong, set some guidelines, and spur their ambitions. But it’s not about me.”

The Keller honeymoon did not last long. In time, more and more members of the notoriously cantankerous newsroom began to find his self-effacement troubling, especially in view of the challenges facing the Times and quality journalism in general. That Keller was committed to safeguarding the paper’s editorial integrity was never doubted; what people started to worry about was whether that was all he could do and whether it would be enough.

Bill Keller, 57, a California native, son of a onetime chief executive of Chevron, is a fiercely intelligent, taciturn, occasionally prickly man who never wanted to be an editor, let alone a leader. But, like Lelyveld, he believes that reporters are the heart of the Times and should run it, even if they have to be torn away from what they do best.

Keller was among the most gifted foreign correspondents of his generation. A graduate of Pomona College, he went to work for the Times in 1984 and, two years later, was sent to Moscow to serve under bureau chief Philip Taubman. His then-wife, Ann Cooper, was a correspondent for National Public Radio, and the two took immediately to Russia. Good fortune struck early. While out with Cooper and Keller, Taubman’s wife, Times reporter Felicity Barringer, suggested they visit dissident intellectual Andrei Sakharov, who was about to return from exile. That very day, the Soviet government had installed a phone in his house so he could receive a call from Mikhail Gorba­chev. A guard at the house gave the reporters Sakharov’s number, and they rushed back to the Times bureau.

Normally, a bureau chief might choose to take such a big story for himself, but Taubman let Keller have it. “Phil said, ‘You’ve got the number, you make the call,’” says Keller. “He let me do the share of the stories that were obviously destined for page one.”

In Moscow, Keller worked ­sixteen-hour days. Among his friends there was David Remnick, then a Washington Post reporter and now editor of The New Yorker. When Remnick arrived in Moscow in 1988, he sized up his chief competitor. “To watch him work, there’s a certain kind of cool intelligence to his bearing,” Remnick says. At Remnick’s first press conference, he noticed that Keller asked no questions and barely took notes. Reading the next day’s paper, he realized Keller had “already been to everybody’s kitchen and sewn the thing up.”

Keller and Remnick had one of the great journalistic opportunities of the twentieth century, witnessing the fall of the Soviet Union, and they both produced spectacular work. Barringer says Keller’s journalism was straighter, Remnick’s more soulful. Taubman compares their competition to “a heavyweight championship match.”

Keller won. He was in Cuba covering Gorbachev’s visit when he learned that he’d won the Pulitzer Prize in 1989. Remnick’s reaction: “I can’t say my initial feelings were ones of overwhelming glee. But he earned it, flat-out.”

Afterward, Keller and Remnick both got book contracts. Remnick’s book, Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire, was published in 1993 and won a Pulitzer. Keller could never finish his and eventually had to return the advance to the publisher. “I’m still paying it back, actually,” says Keller, “on the installment plan.”