BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. Bob Garfield is away this week. I'm Brooke Gladstone. The man passed over two years ago for the executive editorship of the New York Times was named on Monday to just that prestigious post. Times columnist and former managing editor Bill Keller will replace Joe Lelyveld, the former executive editor who came out of retirement to run the paper last month, after Howell Raines resigned. Raines, of course, was sent packing in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, but in the end he did not go quietly. Three nights before Keller's appointment, Raines went on the Charlie Rose Show to give his version of the story and to discuss his relationship with Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger.
HOWELL RAINES:Arthur sent me to the newsroom to be a change agent, to lead a talented staff that was settled into a kind of lethargic culture of complacency into a - being a performance culture.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I'm joined now by Times executive editor-to-be Bill Keller. Bill, welcome to the show!
BILL KELLER: Thank you. It's nice to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Now there was a good deal of revisionism in the Raines interview on Charlie Rose. Mickey Kaus notes in Slate.com, and I quote, "Guess all that contrition Raines displayed when he was campaigning to save his job was bogus. He wouldn't admit to a single mistake except having excessively high standards and moving too fast. His argument is 'he was done in by lazy Lelyveldian pygmies who were defending the status quo against his bold vision of change.'" So-- you're seen as a man in the Lelyveld tradition. Is he talking about you?
BILL KELLER:If he is, I don't mind so much, but what bothered me listening to that interview was the at least implicit and gratuitous insult to a lot of reporters. I mean I was there and watched them cover a couple of Balkan wars and a presidential scandal and impeachment, an election, a contentious recount and a lot of other big stories, and if that was lethargy, you could have fooled me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:[LAUGHS] So then what do you think is the biggest problem at the paper, or, to put it differently, what's the biggest challenge that you face?
BILL KELLER:Well the immediate task I think is just really to finish what Joe Lelyveld has started --that's getting people re-focused on their work and a little less focused on our own, you know, internal angst. There'll be a, a kind of intermediate stage of trying to institute some systemic reforms, safeguards for our credibility, some recommendations on how we recruit and train and some things having to do with the culture in the newsroom.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Let's see if we can unpack some of that. First of all the issue of credibility and accuracy -- I'm going to be frank and say that I certainly don't think the Times has an accuracy problem compared to other papers. It's just read more closely by more people. But having offered that sincerely-felt suck-up, [LAUGHTER] what, what about the enormous correction the Times printed this week to a story about a recording industry executive? It concluded, basically, that the reporter didn't know what she was talking about!
BILL KELLER:That's right. And I'm in the happy position of not being in the newsroom yet and therefore I'm able to plead ignorance, but clearly that reflects a problem, and there, there are sort of two parts of it -- there's the how-on-earth-did-this-happen? -- and I don't know whether that's, you know, a systemic problem or a personnel problem or some of both -- but then there's, you know, there's a second question of what do you do when you screw up? And that part of it I think we can be proud of. You know, we screwed up big, and we owned up big.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:I remember that a couple of years ago you penned -- I won't call it a mea culpa for the foreign desk, but let's call it an explanation of how reporters under you may have rushed to judgment on Wen Ho Lee who was wrongly accused of spying.
BILL KELLER:You can call it a mea culpa if you want! [LAUGHTER] I, I think it kind of was. You know, there are still people out there who will point to the Wen Ho Lee case, you know, as a black mark in our record book, and maybe to an extent it was, but I think the way we handled it and, you know, came clean about our, our own shortcomings was in the end probably a healthy thing for our credibility.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:I guess I didn't call it a mea culpa because a lot of people who read the follow-ups at the time felt that there wasn't a clear enough admission that there had been a rush to judgment.
BILL KELLER:Well, we didn't apologize for things that we didn't think were wrong. There was a notion that some people put out that we had, you know, conducted a-- a racist witch hunt aimed at persecuting this innocent man, and I don't think that's true. So-- we didn't admit that then and I, and I don't think you'd find anybody around here inclined to admit it now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:You told the Wall Street Journal that you imagine that the paper would be more decentralized than it was under Raines. Does that mean essentially returning power back to the section editors?
BILL KELLER:It means returning a lot of the power back to the section editors. You know, look -- I don't believe in anarchy, and we're not a democracy. You know, we don't sort of take a plebescite on how to cover a story or, or how to make up the front page and things like that, but this is essentially a bottom-up business. You know, information happens down where reporters are. And the best ideas tend to happen there too, and you have to create a kind of system where those ideas percolate up.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:But bottom-up news management seemed to have been something of a Joe Lelyveld innovation. If you go back to the Charlie Rose Show, Raines said that humility and modesty weren't adjectives that leapt to mind when reviewing the pantheon of Times chiefs. You are going to order people around, aren't you, Bill?
BILL KELLER:Sure, I am! Sure, I am. I'm not going to surrender my license to go talk to a reporter, meddle in a story, occasionally ask whether a lead on a story might be better a different way. Every once in a while you do that. But every time you do it you're sort of chipping away a little bit at the initiative and enterprise of the reporter.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Could you talk about the competitive environment for a news organization now. Do you think this environment demands the kind of flood-the-zone intensity that Howell Raines was so proud of?
BILL KELLER:Sadly, I think it's probably less competitive than it was in general, because the number of competitive media outlets has declined; the number of reporters committed to important things like foreign coverage has declined, and I think that's not a healthy thing for a democracy. My general philosophy about news coverage is, you know, there are stories where you take everybody you've got and throw them at the story, and you know, clearly September 11th was one of those stories. The war in Iraq was one of those stories. But most of what we do most of the time does not lend itself to blitzkrieg coverage. You know? How the government spends its money and people falling into poverty and local government deciding things that affect your lives. And in fact, some of those are not really, in the sense you're mentioning, competitive stories at all. They're stories that a newspaper like the Times will do because it has three sources to do them. But if we don't, nobody will.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Bill Keller is the newly appointed executive editor of the New York Times and he'll be taking up the new post on July 30th. Thank you very much.