Bill Keller says ‘Times’ readers ‘have not forgotten that we blew it on Iraq,’ and that’s one reason Iran is different

Bill Keller. ()
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It was Bill Keller's most succinct answer of the night.

"Uhh, no," the former New York Times executive editor emphatically replied when asked by Peter Beinart if he'd ever considered going head-to-head with Bill O'Reilly, one of the Times' most voluble detractors, on Fox News, whose viewers Keller has described as being "among the most cynical people on planet earth."

"I don't take well to being shouted at," said Keller. "Once you've established that you're brave enough to go and stand up to Bill O'Reilly, you're basically, you know, you're the Christian in the 'lions versus the Christians' arena, and where's the satisfaction in that?"

Keller was 45 minutes into his Wednesday evening chat with Beinart, a senior political writer at The Daily Beast and faculty member at CUNY's journalism school, which has the distinction of sharing a neon-lit block of Times Square real estate with the paper of record. Their interview, however, part of an ongoing series that has previously put Christopher Hitchens, Tina Brown, Andrew Sullivan and Paul Krugman in the hot seat, was taking place about a 10-minute walk downtown on a stage inside the university's Fifth Avenue Graduate Center.

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Keller was dressed in the same dark grey suit he always seems to be wearing at these types of functions. But this outing must have felt more relaxed than previous public engagements when his views were on display.

After eight years at the helm of the Times, the 63-year-old newsman can finally breathe more easily. His tour as the Times' captain took him through rougher seas than most editors have had to navigate: Two wars and the brutal hindsight that his paper helped to create the political conditions for one of them; an economic crisis that all but crippled the industry to which he'd devoted his career; the digital transformation of the world's most prestigious news institution. And so on.

But in September, when Keller passed the torch to his long-trusted lieutenant, Jill Abramson, the weight of those burdens (or some of it, at least) was lifted from his shoulders.

These days, as a full-time writer for the Times' op-ed section, Keller spends most of his time not poring over the many stories that jostle for space in the paper, but opining within its pages. And he can do so without crossing over that firewall that's meant to separate the people whose job it is to report the news from the people whose job it is to comment on it.

"For me, it was not so much liberating that, now I can have opinions," he said. "It's liberating that when I have opinions, I can say them."

In the spirit of this new-found liberation (which is actually the second time Keller has enjoyed it: his first stint as an op-ed columnist immediately preceded his executive editorship following a meteoric 17-year rise from reporter to managing editor), Keller shared a number of opinions with the audience, including his opinion about which area of the Times' news report tends to be the most opinionated—that is, in the so-called "liberally-biased" way that seems to make some conservatives' blood boil.

Tough question!

"Um ... I think ... you know, I mean ... because I know most of the people who have bylines," he said, "and in the context of reading the stories I see them wrestling with their convictions, what is the issue on which they do least well? Uh ... it would ... it would probably fall under the realm of social issues, by and large."

Marriage, for instance. Or certain religious topics, like the recent debate over contraception.

Then again, how can the Times not reflect its own cultural milieu?

"We can't entirely leech the New York-ness out of The New York Times," said Keller. "If we somehow achieved absolute objectivity, it would be kind of tedious to read. ... Watching The New York Times try to be even-handed on some issues is like trying to watch somebody dance their kids' dance styles. We look like we're trying too hard. Yes, we should be even-handed, we should certainly follow the basic rule of reporting, challenging your assumptions, and we should be ruthless about having a public editor or an editors' note to call ourselves out. ... But it is possible to be fair and still radiate a cultural persona."

One subject on which the Times has called itself out is the paper's "notoriously credulous stories about Iraqi weapons" in the early 2000s, as Keller wrote back in September.

Ten years later, Times reporters and their colleagues on the international security and foreign policy beats once again find themselves beating the drums of war as they assess the nuclear threat that may or may not be looming in Iran.

This time around, Keller senses greater skepticism within the press corps.

"Both The Washington Post and The New York Times have ombudsmen, and both of them have written recently addressing reader complaints that some of the reporting is leaning a little too hard into the idea that Iran is becoming a nuclear power and represents an existential threat to Israel and so on," he said. "So at least the watchdogs within the newsroom are very conscious of this. Readers are conscious of it. They have not forgotten that we blew it on Iraq. And I think reporters are aware of it too. There is a measure of caution that I hope is the lessons of Iraq sinking in."

Keller also defended his stewardship in "shepherding the Times into the digital age," as Beinart put it, including his role in developing the paid online model the paper adopted just about a year ago.

"I have something of a reputation, within certain circles, mainly the people who spend most of their lives tweeting, for being a digiphobe or a Luddite," he said. "I don't think that's right. The Times on my watch became an incredibly successful digital medium."

And he acknowledged his own role in delaying the eventual elevation of a female to the Times' top masthead position. Abramson, indeed, is the first woman to have the executive editor title, a feat that one audience member called "heartening" while framing a question about the lack of gender diversity at journalism's managerial level.

"My smart-ass answer is that it took so long because there were people like me in the way," said Keller, though he pointed out that many women at the Times have by now ascended to high-ranking editor positions.

"The real reason why it's taken so long is that The New York Times is a kind of a trickle up. Like a lot of bureaucratic organizations, you've gotta earn your spurs at one level before you can get to another, and it took awhile for a number of women to be in that position," he said. "Where actually now, if you're trying to imagine who would be Jill's successor, there would be several."