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The United States of America vs. Bill Keller

A glimpse of the New York Times' daily page-one meeting.  

Shortly thereafter, prompted by public editor Daniel Okrent’s decision to write a column about Miller’s WMD stories, the paper published an editor’s note in May 2004. Keller later acknowledged that it came too late, apologizing in a memo for mistakes in the Miller episode: “I wish we had dealt with the controversy over our coverage of WMD as soon as I became executive editor ... I was trying to get my arms around a huge new job, appoint my team, get the paper fully back to normal and I feared the WMD issue could become a crippling distraction.”

Keller’s reluctance to engage the issue, for which he was clobbered by bloggers in particular, had the effect of solidifying a reputation for indecisiveness that had started to gel, in part, as a function of his allowing Abramson to have the greater profile in the newsroom. Spending most of his time in front of a computer screen, he managed in a hands-off style that allowed self-starting editors to prosper but that sidestepped hard calls. “By avoiding strife, he allowed problems to fester,” observes one Times reporter who, like others quoted in this story, requested anonymity for fear of angering his colleagues and/or bosses. “And they seem to have a nasty habit of blowing up.”

Other than Sulzberger, Abramson is Keller’s most important and complicated relationship at the paper. Because she had worked mostly in Washington, Keller didn’t know her well when she was appointed the managing editor for news (John Geddes is the managing editor for operations). Keller had preferred to make former metro editor Jon Landman his news managing editor but offered the post to Abramson as a concession to Sulzberger, who wants Abramson in contention to be the Times’ first female executive editor.

The 52-year-old Abramson arrived at the paper as a reporter in 1997 after a decade at The Wall Street Journal. She marched quickly through the ranks, keeping close company with other powerful women writers, including Maureen Dowd. In right-wing conspiracies about the Times, Abramson and Dowd are seen as a liberal female cabal with occult power over the relatively benign and more conservative Keller. Abramson is known within the paper for her sharp elbows and for being an aggressive editor who implores reporters to “go kill for us.” Indeed, Abramson advertises herself as the more assertive of Keller’s consiglieri. “I’m blunter and more impatient, and I tend to worry and think things are off course,” she says. “And he’s more programmed the other way.”

During our interviews, Keller repeatedly referred to Abramson as “my sidekick.” He describes his relationship to Abramson as being like a marriage, with all its attendant complexities. “It’s harder to see straight when you’re in it,” says Keller. “Like any marriage, we have our occasional spats.”

Before Keller became editor, Abramson wasn’t necessarily his greatest fan. One Timesman recalls Abramson characterizing him as aloof, arrogant, and “incommunicado.” After he offered her the job, Abramson pushed for her friend and former deputy Rick Berke to succeed her as bureau chief. Instead, Keller went with his trusted friend from Moscow, Philip Taubman. “Rick had been not only a steady, wonderful deputy but someone who also kept morale in the bureau up,” Abramson says. “I thought he would have been a good choice.”

Keller divides his executive editorship thus far into two distinct chapters: the period of healing after Raines left and the “period of distractions,” when he found himself once again tormented by Judy Miller, who this time was fighting a federal subpoena in the Valerie Plame leak case. The year-and-a-half-long ordeal—which Abramson calls an “icky, demoralized time”—cemented the relationship between Abramson and Keller. “Judy Miller was our first bonding experience,” he says.

“If Abe was running the New York Times today,” says Keller, he would find himself “in the same predicament that I find myself in … Howell may have been the last gasp of the thunderbolt editor.”

The impact of the Miller affair on the paper’s reputation was enormous—in many ways, more damaging than the Blair scandal. The Times spent more than $1.5 million and an incalculable amount of public credibility defending a reporter who appeared to many to be cooperating with a White House effort to smear a WMD whistle-blower.

The case was byzantine, but it basically revolved around relationships—Sulzberger’s to Keller, Keller’s to Abramson, and everybody’s to Miller. Keller, though, had a strangely detached role in it all. While Sulzberger went on his crusade to make Miller a martyr for freedom of the press and Abramson got caught up in the day-to-day dogfight of holding together the Washington bureau (where resentment against Miller and Times management was running very hot), Keller seemed to float above the fray. He did make one critical decision, though; when Miller tried to claim that Abramson had known about her reporting on the Plame case, Abramson said Miller was lying. That made it Miller’s word against Abramson’s, and Keller sided with his managing editor. “I’m pretty sure Jill would have remembered,” he says, “and I’m pretty sure Judy would have put it in writing anyway.” Even before Miller went to jail for 85 days to protect her source, Abramson and Keller decided she would never write for the paper again.