Keller enjoyed a brief alpha moment after the NSA story was published. “The story freed Bill Keller to be Bill Keller,” says Okrent, the former public editor. The boost to morale at the paper was unquestionable. Reporter Gardiner Harris voices the sentiment of many in the Washington bureau: “The yearlong delay was a transitional moment for Bill,” he says. “The delay resulted from his timidity. I’m not at all convinced that it was a change in his mind-set that led it to be published.” But, he adds, “once published, it sent him down a path to being more aggressive.”
But almost as quickly, Keller was attacked again from outside the paper, mostly by the left, for delaying the story and possibly costing Kerry the election.
In January, Keller and Abramson flew to Washington to discuss overhauling the Washington bureau. They wanted fewer incremental stories on the daily political scrum, more “high impact” stories like the NSA scoop. “Clearly, the NSA story and the way it lifted the whole paper was a big factor in setting that as a priority,” says Keller.
The changes were a long time coming. Late in 2003, six months into Keller’s editorship, at least three senior reporters at the paper told Keller they thought the paper’s coverage of the Bush administration was weak and frightened. Keller tended to bristle at such criticism. But Abramson says the Abu Ghraib prison torture story, broken by CBS News and The New Yorker, showed that the Times had fallen behind.
Keller’s wife says he’s got a bigger ego than he lets on. She calls him an “alpha male in disguise.”
Keller now admits that the paper’s Washington bureau had, until late last year, been too “reactive” to news, often playing catch-up on big stories broken by others. Asked if the need for a shake-up was an implicit criticism of his friend Taubman, Keller pauses for a long moment, then declines to answer directly. “A number of things, including the NSA story, awakened us to the potential that wasn’t being fully realized in the bureau,” he says.
But enacting change turned out to be harder than Keller had imagined. Inside the Times, there was a growing consensus that Taubman was too cautious, and Keller himself thought the bureau needed fresh blood. Just as the NSA story was being revived in the fall of 2005, Abramson, who had begun to take a larger role in Washington coverage, suggested that 42-year-old Don Van Natta Jr., a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter, be promoted to Taubman’s deputy, the No. 2 slot, and in November 2005, Keller offered Van Natta that job. This move was perceived by some as an attempt to undermine Taubman, just as Raines had done to Abramson years ago when he assigned a relatively inexperienced reporter named Patrick Tyler to be her No. 2. (“She’s got a little bit of Howell in her,” notes one Times reporter of Abramson.)
But Taubman would not let that happen to him. A week after Keller offered Van Natta the job, Taubman met with Van Natta and told him there’d be two deputy positions. Later, Taubman would propose a three-deputy configuration.
Weighing the diminishing job against a $1 million advance he and Jeff Gerth had been offered to co-write a book about Hillary Clinton, Van Natta reversed course and turned down Keller. The apparent power struggle between Abramson and Taubman—or at least Keller’s inability to square his relationships—had effectively blown up Keller’s best idea for recharging the D.C. bureau, without removing Taubman. Keller was incensed—at Van Natta. “Yeah, I was mad that he didn’t take the job,” says Keller. “We were serious about wanting to move the bureau away from incremental coverage to high-impact coverage, and he would be there supporting that, and I guess I took his decision not to take the job as at least in part a lack of trust or a lack of faith in us.”
The difficulty of navigating the paper through this historic period can hardly be overstated. The Bush administration has masterfully eroded the press’s ability to do its job. Partisan bloggers and radio commentators scrutinize every story for evidence of carrying somebody’s political water. For a paper that aspires to objectivity, like the Times, and for an editor who is a true centrist, like Keller, that has made the going very tough.
After the NSA story, Keller allowed the paper to become more aggressive in its coverage of the administration, leading in June to Risen’s Swift banking story, about the Bush administration’s efforts to track international financial records. This time, the backlash was even harsher. If the White House had simply been infuriated by the first report on a secret program, it went ballistic this time, excoriating the Times and inspiring bloggers and talk-radio hosts to call for Keller’s head. One commentator suggested he be gassed. The vice-president said it was “disturbing” that “the news media take it upon themselves to disclose vital national-security programs.”