Mr. Keller’s planet

William McGowan Author, Gray Lady Down
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Back when he was the executive editor of The New York Times, Bill Keller said he didn’t want his Sunday Magazine column to become the “editor’s pulpit,” overly absorbed in journalistic issues. But he certainly gave a preacherly blast to Fox News on the op-ed page last Sunday, calling it Rupert Murdoch’s most “toxic legacy.”

“My complaint is that Fox pretends very hard to be something it is not,” wrote Keller, “and in the process contributes to the corrosive cynicism that has polarized our public discourse.”

While Keller may not have shown the rank hypocrisy of an Elmer Gantry, the lack of self-awareness in his sermon was breathtaking. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black! Almost every sin he catalogues at Fox besets his own news organization. “Corrosive cynicism” indeed.

This is not to say that Fox is beyond criticism. Offering on-air sinecures to out-of-power politicians can be inappropriate, especially when there’s a good chance these figures could return to the political fray, forcing former colleagues to cover them. Some, though not all, of Fox’s opinion programming seems to have become an adjunct to the GOP’s communications apparatus. And Fox is certainly not infallible; contrary to what Roger Ailes said in a speech last month at the University of North Carolina, Fox has taken down some stories over the years.

But for Keller to say that “we [the mainstream media] try to live by a code, a discipline, that tells us to set aside our personal biases, to test not only facts but the way they add up, to seek out the dissenters and let them make their best case,” among other self-stroking claims, is a crock.

Times editors and reporters have long put their thumbs on the scales to ensure that the “intelligent opinions” it wants its readers to hold are in accord with their own. They do so largely by manipulating the stories they choose to cover, the sources they rely on and the quotes they run to fit The Times’ overwhelmingly liberal worldview. As public editor Clark Hoyt wrote in April 2008, the “news pages are laced with columns, news analysis, criticism, reporter’s notebooks, memos, journals and appraisals — all forms that depart from the straightforward presentation of facts and carry the risk of blurring the line between news and opinion.” Is The Times a liberal newspaper, the paper’s first ombudsman Daniel Okrent asked. “Of course it is.”

A prime example of opinion bleeding into news coverage was the Duke “rape” case of 2006, on which The Times ran almost 150 news reports, columns and editorials, almost all skewed against the suspects. One controversial piece affirmed that the prosecutor had assembled a strong enough case to go to trial, even as it acknowledged the case had major holes in it. Dan Abrams, a former MSNBC legal analyst, called the article “shameful” and “an editorial on the front page of what is supposed to be the news division of the newspaper.”

And what about the paper’s foot-dragging in acknowledging the religious motivations of jihadi attacks such as the massacre at Fort Hood in 2009? What about the way the paper jumped to conclusions about the 2011 shooting in Tucson, when it beat the drum about violent right-wing rhetoric for days even after it became clear that the shooter was an apolitical nut job? What about the accusations that Arizona’s crackdown on illegal immigrants is fueled by bigotry and will foster racial profiling when the Obama administration itself made no such claims in its case before the Supreme Court?

Keller is also out to lunch about the paper’s level of transparency. “When we screw up — and we do — we are obliged to own up to our mistakes and correct them,” he says.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, after Keller drew scorn for running an anonymously sourced front-page report insinuating that John McCain had had an affair with a young lobbyist, Keller was unrepentant, even after public editor Clark Hoyt insulted his journalistic judgment. Asked about the McCain campaign’s complaints on a New Yorker panel, Keller arrogantly replied, “My first tendency when they do that is to find the toughest McCain story we’ve got and put it on the front page.” But Keller had to eat crow when the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, brought a $27 million libel suit, only dropping it after she got a back-peddling statement from The Times — a year after the original article. Brandon Darby was slandered in a 2009 Times report as the instigator of a bombing plot against the 2008 GOP convention. In fact, Darby was an FBI informer who wanted to avoid bloodshed. It took Darby two years and he, too, had to file a lawsuit to get his correction. And The Times has never given the Duke lacrosse players a correction — or an apology — despite advice from one of its former public editors that it should put up a billboard in Times Square doing precisely that.

Keller also argued that The Times is open to dissent while Fox demonizes it. This is especially rich coming from someone who has been waging an Ahab-like demonization campaign against Fox for so many years. In 2005, Keller called Fox’s “fair and balanced” motto “the most ingeniously cynical slogan in the history of media marketing.” Speaking about the Tucson shooting at the National Press Club in early 2011, which his own paper egregiously misrepresented, Keller asserted, “It is true that the national discourse is more polarized and strident than it has been in the past, and to some extent, I would lay that at the feet of [Fox owner] Rupert Murdoch.” In March 2011, at the City University of New York, Keller took his anti-Fox vendetta to a new level, saying, “I think if you’re a regular viewer of Fox News, you’re among the most cynical people on planet Earth.” Bernie Goldberg rightly said that what Keller really meant was that Fox viewers are among “the stupidest people” on the planet.

Keller seems not to have noticed the way public editors on his watch have been treated like unwanted stepchildren. According to Daniel Okrent, his time at The Times was “18 months of bruised feelings, offended egos, pissed off editors and infuriated writers.” Outside critics are simply blacklisted.

Keller spends a lot of time in the column bashing Roger Ailes for not cooperating with a New York magazine writer working on a book about Fox. When I was researching my last book, Gray Lady Down, I called Keller several times for comment, but never got a return. (None of Keller’s editors offered access either.) And the praise Keller now expresses for the New York magazine writer, Gabriel Sherman, is a far cry from the passive-aggressive put-down he tossed at Sherman for investigating the backstory to the McCain mistress “expose” in ’08.

Shrinks say that we often find the most annoying things about other people are the very things that unconsciously bother us most about ourselves. They have a fancy word for this: “projection.” Most of us, however, know this kind of hypocrisy by the handy old saying: People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. To the couch, Bill Keller. To the couch.

William McGowan is the author of Gray Lady Down: What the Decline and Fall of The New York Times Means for America.