Keller of The Times writes: The final chapter

Keller of The Times writes: The final chapter

: I got one last email from New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller. Here it is, with my response.

But I need to explain the T-shirt. At the end of our last exchange, I said that because he knew his emails would be posted in public, he was truly blogging and I welcomed him to the club (read: cult). He emailed me and asked when he was getting a T-shirt. I sent him an “I’m Blogging This” shirt. Now I’m dying to get a picture of him in it. So now to the emails. First, Bill Keller:


I’ve mustered enough steam for one last round before I return my full attention to my other job.

I’m not going to re-litigate your dispute with The Times over the Sarah Boxer piece. Anyone who cares can read Dan Okrent’s evenhanded account in his forum at the NYT website, which also includes an extensive response from Jon Landman, the culture editor. I agree with Landman, and I tip my hat to Okrent on one important point, the dangers of blurring the line between criticism and straight reporting. I think your reaction to Boxer’s piece was way, way over the top, especially in its suggestion that she somehow endangered the lives of Iraqi bloggers, a slur that Landman thoroughly debunks.

My study of the blog culture is, I readily admit, very cursory and incomplete, but it’s striking that there seems to be no end to any argument in your world. Every grievance is recycled endlessly, not necessarily spiraling up to a higher level of enlightenment but starting over and over from scratch. It’s Groundhog Day. You were angry about Sarah Boxer’s piece. You wrote to The Times. You got a thoughtful response from the editor in charge, and an additional thoughtful kibbitz from the public editor. But in your complaint to me, you take up the argument from the beginning, as if the replies from Landman and Okrent had not happened, or had not registered. Perhaps that’s because at each turn of the rhetorical wheel new viewers are skimming past who have not, or cannot be bothered to, read into the history of the argument. And so, in each go-round, there’s incentive to resurrect every point in your original indictment, even those that may have been discredited or rendered irrelevant, in hopes of converting the half-informed newcomer. Maybe the blog world needs an equivalent of the courtroom admonition, “asked and answered.”

That’s one thing I was driving at when I remarked on the dynamic of this particular, wonderful but sometimes infuriating medium. It is massively inclusive but everyone brings to it an individual appetite and a sense of entitlement, regardless of whether they have done the homework. You can join the discussion from a position of raw, opinionated ignorance. Sometimes the result is less a conversation than a clamor. Last time, I expressed some frustration that thrice-removed versions of something I said had scattered across the digital globe and prompted reactions that bore no relation to anything I had actually said or thought. Your solution, if I get your drift, was that I should go blog-to-blog, dropping in and conversing, winning friends and setting the record straight. Easy for you to say, since you seem to live without sleep. By the same standard, I could probably win friends for The Times by going door to door in Queens, extolling and explaining the paper to prospective readers, but is that the best use of my time? Direct democracy may work in a Swedish canton, but it doesn’t scale very well, and I kind of think the same thing is true of “citizen’s” journalism. I suspect that for blogging to achieve the status its practitioners aspire to, it will have to become a bit less retail, a little more edited, a little more a product of judgment. In other word, a bit more…like us, the MSM. In fact, it is already happening, isn’t it?

One thing we have not discussed about blogs is the extent to which they are a waste of time. The thing that struck me during my week or so of very elementary and intermittent bloggery is that it is very seductive. (It also helps overcome byline withdrawal.) It would be easy to shirk my job and swap thoughts with you and yours, and the time flies by and at the end we’ve generated an exchange that will be skimmed in haste by some number of people, to what end? And the same thing that is true of blogging is true of reading blogs, which I do pretty regularly: you can while away endless hours, skipping over the surface of half-baked thoughts and every so often colliding with something original or unexpected. Or you could play with your kids. Or go to a museum. Or read a good book. (Or a good newspaper!) The blogosphere may be interactive, but can you honestly say that the ratio of thoughtful conversation to meaningless chatter is any higher than it is on, say, cable TV talk shows? For now, at least, I prefer a newspaper — even granting that it costs more and that I am — in part — entrusting the acquisition of information, the selection of what’s important and the making sense of it to someone else. For now, for me, bloggers are a prequel and a sequel, but not the main event. But I would say that, wouldn’t I?

I’ve found it educational and satisfying and a lot more fun than I’d have expected. You’ve been a gracious host and a stimulating interlocutor, and I love the T-shirt. I owe you two things: a live chat, which I would propose to do chez moi ( ought to get some traffic out of this, yes?) and perhaps you have some thoughts about how to proceed and make it more inclusive without it just being a free-for-all rant, if that’s avoidable. And I owe you a cup of coffee, over which I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on what concretely we can do to advance our common interests. I’ll call to figure out a time, and promise to bring an open mind.

For now, the last word is yours.

Cheers, Bill

And my response:


First, thanks for taking the time and effort to have this conversation and for making it both challenging and cordial. I’ve enjoyed and appreciated this.

Now to your points…

So we disagree. But there is value in that. Perhaps if we have honed in on our differences — which are few — we can say that we agree about everything else. Well, perhaps.

I debated whether to bring Sarah Boxer’s Iraqi blog story into our exchange, out of respect for our blossoming collegiality. But when you raised a specific complaint about your treatment in the blogosphere, I decided that my encounter with the Timesphere was the most fitting counterpart I could produce. Now I’m glad I brought it up, for it’s good that we identify the differences; that is part of the process of defining this new thing we have and how it relates to the old.

And we do disagree: I stand by what I said; you stand by the story. I don’t think the story was up to Times standards; you do — and you, after all, are the man who sets those standards. You also disagree with my prescription for how you could have treated your blog virus (more on that in a minute). But those differences are not the point here. They are (with apologies to Eason Jordan) collateral damage in this discussion. Here, I think, is real revelation that comes from this particular back-and-forth:

I’m glad I brought up the Boxer story because I’m glad you called my response to it “way, way over the top” — because that illustrates the more fundamental difference between these media. Namely…

Blogs are personal. Bloggers are passionate.

Journalism is institutional. Journalists are dispassionate.

Blogs are just people talking. And maybe that’s the way journalists should look at them. Oh, yes, blogs do journalism. But when you read bloggers and think of them in your terms as journalists — and then you hear these voices that are passionate, personal, brash, opinionated, immediate, irreverent, persistent, grating, and loud — I’ll bet it shoots a hot spike up your spine. Journalists don’t talk like that! Mobs do! I understand that. I went to J-school and drank from the cup. It was hard for me to deprogram when I became a columnist, let alone a blogger. But I’ve come to cherish this new medium precisely because the voice is so earnest and honest and human.

So, if you want, think of bloggers not as journalists but as citizens (no, sorry, I almost forgot you didn’t like that). Or think of them as the people (no, that’s still not it — too Internationale, don’t you think?). Instead, think of bloggers as readers (if we’re lucky). But to paraphrase Jay Rosen, these readers can now write — and so your writers should now be reading. Do you and your staff want to hear what your readers have to say? I hope you do. Of course, you do. Well, blogs give you a new way to listen… without having to knock on doors in Queens (or Washington).

And, by the way, I wasn’t suggesting that you needed to respond to every blogger — or knock on every door — in the case of your remixed quote. If you had responded directly to one of the bloggers — challenged them, called them on taking you out of context — I’ll guarantee that bloggers themselves would have spread your response for you. That’s how this distributed medium works: our audience gives us content and distribution and marketing.

To reply to a few of your other points, just to wrap things up:

You’re quite right that — knowing this exchange was going to be public and knowing that your involvement would bring in new participants — I should have linked to the earlier responses regarding Boxer’s story from Okrent and Landman in Dan’s forum. I violated our ethic of the link, which we hold dear if not holy (it is our best proof that we are not an echo chamber). So when I post this email, I will post those links.

You’re also right that discussions don’t seem to end here, or that they take their own damned sweet time doing so. But I say that’s good for a few reasons: First, this isn’t a paper with limited pages or a show with limited minutes or, yes, a medium with an editor; here, everyone who wants a day gets a say; the populist in me loves that. Second, the persistence of the blogs sometimes milks the wisdom of the crowd; that is, in Rathergate, one person knew about Microsoft Word, another about Selectrics, another about how the Guard works, and together they got closer to the truth than Rather did (on TV, we’d call that team coverage). Third, if big media’s greatest strength in the public arena is bigness, then bloggers’ greatest strength is that persistence. Bloggers did not stop hammering on Trent Lott (or rather on big media to cover the story) or on Dan Rather (who tried to dismiss the discussion). Persistence yields volume if more people post and link and discuss a story or a notion — if, as we say, the meme propagates [good Lord, I can hear you thinking, why can’t these people just speak English?]. If that doesn’t happen, the story, the notion, the meme dies a just death.

I also want to respond to your view that blogs are too massively inclusive and need editing. Blogs are edited — by bloggers. And I don’t mean that just in the words of Ken Layne: “We can fact-check your ass.” I mean that thanks to our ethic of the link, the cream rises. Look at Technorati, where links approximate “authority.” This new medium is neither anarchy nor direct democracy. It is very much a meritocracy.

And, finally, I clearly don’t think that blogging — reading or writing — is a waste of time. I don’t read all blogs. I read the good ones (good as defined by one judge: me — which is why I can indeed say that blogs, for me, beat Crossfire). These blogs save me time. As Jeff Greenfield at CNN told me one night, he starts every morning reading blogs because they find the good bits for him. That is the essential value proposition of news blogs: We read for you. But more important than that, if blogs do help me to hear the voice of the people, then I don’t consider that to be a waste of time, not a bit.

Now, at last, let’s end on our fundamental agreement: I, too trust newspapers — for news. Even if they won’t admit it, I think most bloggers also trust most newspapers for most of the news (or they wouldn’t link to them; they’d have little to link to). But what I trust blogs for is hearing the voice of those people. In that way, these media are complementary, even if they don’t know it. And that, Bill, is where we began.

I look forward to chatting (but I’ll issue a challenge: if you wear your blog T-shirt, I’ll wear a Times apron and green eyeshade).

I’m sorry that I went on longer (we are unaccustomed to the scarcity of ink or paper). Also, being that I had the first word, I should have given you the last. But, hey, we’re bloggers. We believe there is no last word….



: You can read the entire exchange with Keller here (start at the bottom and scroll up)

: LATER: Gawker puts it all in perspective:

First Brad and Jen. Then Charlie and Denise. Now, another beloved couple is calling it quits: Jeff Jarvis and Bill Keller.

Sad. It seems like just yesterday these two were strolling arm-in-arm in the park while talking about blogs and MSM, sharing Frrrozen Hot Chocolate at Serendipity 3 and making jokes about Daniel Okrent, looking deep in each others