Starting Saturday, New York Times executive editor Bill Keller has been filing reports from Tehran, where last week’s dubious election results have caused rioting and widespread protests. He’s written an account of reactions on the street, and co-bylined an analysis of what Ahmadinejad’s victory will mean for his future rule. It’s highly unusual for a senior editor to insert himself into a massive breaking story like this. Top Times masthead members will occasionally contribute to the various sections of the paper (managing editor Jill Abramson wrote a book review in March, for example, and Rick Berke has been known to write movie reviews), but even Keller only tends to do so a couple of times a year, and never — since his appointment in 2003 — news stories from the ground. Staffers at the Times, in fact, were startled and confused to see his name beside a Tehran dateline. “Everyone’s done a total double take,” said one.
According to Times spokeswoman Diane McNulty, Keller arrived in Iran at the beginning of last week. “He went because he had long wanted to visit Iran and the occasion of the election seemed like a great time to do so, accompanying our reporter, Robert Worth,” she said. “Bill had not planned to write articles, but when the story got so big, he did so.” Before Keller arrived, there were already a handful of journalists on the ground in the Middle East contributing to the story. Worth and fellow reporter Nazila Fathi were taking the lead, according to a check of bylines.
It’s no secret Bill Keller misses reporting. In a Q&A with readers in January of this year, he had this to say about becoming an editor:
In fact, I spent 25 years as a reporter, swearing I would never become an editor. Sitting at a desk, watching other people go out and find the story, and then fussing with other people’s words — I just didn’t get the appeal of that. Then as I was finishing up a reporting assignment in South Africa in 1995, my boss at The Times asked if I wanted to be the next foreign editor. It’s one thing to say you don’t want to be an editor. It’s another thing to be offered a chance to lead the most impressive team of foreign correspondents in the world. It turned out that editing was a variation on the figuring-things-out function that most appealed to me about journalism. Except that as an editor I can deploy a staff of reporters and, working with them, try to figure out a whole lot of things at once.
When asked his favorite moment from his career in journalism, he said: “Choosing my favorite moment in journalism would be like picking a favorite among my children. I can’t pick one favorite.” But in the end he went with a memory from when he was on the ground, abroad. “I was lucky enough to cover the end of communism in the Soviet Union and the end of apartheid in South Africa,” he said. “How’s that for starters?” A breaking news story with the potential to change a government, and eventually part of the world — sound familiar?