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The United States of America vs. Bill Keller

In some ways, the Swift story was a stumble for the Times. In an effort to unleash another NSA-size story by giving Risen (now a Pulitzer Prize winner for his NSA story) room to run, Keller appeared to overplay the paper’s hand. After all, this program not only was legal but also had been disclosed in a United Nations report in 2002 and even alluded to by Bush himself in less- specific ways. If the paper had not framed the story as a blockbuster scoop, it might have avoided some of the backlash.

Keller, though, was uncharacteristically fired up by the effort to tar him. “They pissed me off,” he says. “I think the administration is genuinely distressed that we ran the story over their objections. I think they were embarrassed by it, by the fact that this most secretive of administrations has so much trouble keeping its secrets. I think they were probably sincere in their anxiety that publicizing this program might jeopardize it. And, you know, that’s all fair, but when they stir up a partisan hatefest and impugn your integrity and patriotism, that is, to borrow a word from the White House list of talking points, disgraceful.”

If Keller had been vague and unsteady in defending the eavesdropping story, he moved decisively to ward off this next wave of attacks from the Bush administration. He took to the television and the op-ed page and fired back at his critics. It wasn’t necessarily a great performance—he looked hunched and defensive on CBS News’ Face the Nation—but his critics gave him points for letting his alpha flag fly.

Is Bill Keller “an editor perfectly matched to the historic moment”?

After two weeks of no response, I e-mailed Abramson and she finally wrote back, “I do think he is very well suited to these times. He is cerebral and careful, which at a historic moment when The New York Times is under such constant scrutiny and attack, serves the paper extremely well. He is gutsy. I’ve watched him stand up and make the tough—and right—call and then fight for and defend his stand, whether involving stories or issues inside the paper.”

To fully answer the historical question about Keller, though, means engaging the subject of his relationship with Arthur Sulzberger and the business aspects of the newspaper. Sulzberger has long wrestled with how the Times can prosper, or even survive, in the fast-changing media environment, and for his troubles, he has been battered in the press (Ken Auletta last year in The New Yorker, Michael Wolff more recently in Vanity Fair) as well as savaged in his own newsroom. His championing of Judy Miller, a figure perhaps more reviled within the Times than even Howell Raines, may have been the final straw. Now that the paper’s much-vaunted national circulation strategy has hit a wall, the worry that Sulzberger carries around with him every day is that the Internet is killing his bottom line. The newspaper’s Website simply cannot produce enough revenue to sustain a huge news-gathering operation, and that has put Sulzberger on a tireless quest to cut costs and find the big idea that will save the day. (His investment in the Discovery Channel didn’t do it, nor did the Times’ semi-hostile takeover of the International Herald Tribune. His purchase of About .­com has fared better.)

One of Sulzberger’s big ideas was naming Raines executive editor, and when that came crashing down and he was essentially forced to appoint Keller, Sulzberger made sure to curtail his powers. “The person who truly controls the fate of the paper is Arthur Sulzberger,” says one Times staffer, “and in that sense no one feels like they’re in good hands because people feel he’s an incredible boob.”

People who know both men say that their relationship remains scarred by Sulzberger’s initial rejection of Keller and that their interactions still tend to be awkward. But the public floggings that Sulz­berger has endured over the Miller affair have softened Keller’s position toward his publisher, leading, says Keller, to “a greater degree of understanding and candor between the two of us.”

Keller depends on Sulzberger to protect the paper from Wall Street—but no one can protect Keller from Sulzberger. Keller meets with him three times a week to discuss business at the paper, a part of the job he loathes. Pressure on the Times has grown in the last year to add more style and entertainment editorial—from Thursday “Styles” to the array of T magazines—while trimming the core news operation. Some changes have been particularly unpopular internally, like the imminent shrinking of the paper size and the “strip ads” that began to appear on section fronts. Keller concedes they are “a blight,” but they are now a fixture.