Times editor discusses Blair scandal

New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller talked about the Jayson Blair scandal and his career as a journalist at Monday night’s Kalb Report.

Speaking in front of about 150 people at the National Press Club, Keller, who assumed The Times’ top post in July 2003, discounted the importance of journalism schools. He also addressed recent criticism of The Times and The Washington Post regarding their coverage of the war in Iraq and the events leading up to it.

Keller took over as Times executive editor when his predecessor, Howell Raines, resigned after coming under fire for his alleged role in reporter Jayson Blair’s fabrication of articles. Critics accused Raines of purposely turning a blind eye to Blair’s deception.

“People say, ‘don’t hire a sociopathic liar,'” joked Keller, who went on to explain that reporters are fallible and that The Times gives its reporters a lot of autonomy, which can backfire if a reporter is disingenuous.

“The basic business of reporting entails a great deal of trust,” Keller said.

Emphasizing that mistakes can even be made at The Times, one of the world’s most venerable papers, Keller went on to name some of the changes that have been made to prevent scandals from occurring in the future, including the hiring of an ombudsman to address reader concerns.

Although moderator Marvin Kalb prodded him repeatedly about his political views, Keller was determined to avoid discussing his opinions.

“I’d like focus to be on the paper and not on me,” said Keller, a former Times columnist and editor and reporter for the Oregonian.

Kalb quoted Keller as saying that becoming executive editor of The Times “was like getting the keys to a Jaguar.”

Keller said his job of overseeing more than 1,200 editors and reporters is rewarding but also demanding.

Keller was also pressed about why The Times felt it was necessary to publish a huge advertisement for itself in its own pages and what his paper is doing to remain competitive with Internet and television news.

Keller answered all of Kalb’s questions with praise for the 152-year-old newspaper and its staff, which he described as “1,200 precision-moving parts.” Nevertheless, in the newsroom, there is an “ambient level of discontent” that characterizes every good newspaper, Keller said.

Members of the audience included renowned journalist John Finney, a former news editor at The Times’ Washington bureau. Finney asked Keller if he believed news stories are more opinionated than they used to be.

“A fair amount would have been regarded as excessively opinionated 20 years ago,” responded Keller, who stressed the need to help readers understand complex issues that often require some explanation and analysis.

A GW student questioned why Keller called for the resignation of Secretary of State Colin Powell, one of the few African-Americans in President George W. Bush’s cabinet, in a column published shortly after the Iraq invasion began in March 2003.

While refusing to discuss the editorial, Keller said some people have looked at his article as a call for the entire Bush administration to resign because of its conduct during the run-up to the war.

Sponsored by GW, Harvard University and the National Press Club, Monday night’s Kalb Report aired on C-SPAN and was broadcast on WMAL radio, a D.C. station. Previous guests on the show have included CBS anchor Dan Rather and Times chairman Arthur Sulzberger.

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