Bill Keller had been the inevitable choice as executive editor of the New York Times for so many weeks that it would have been stunning if publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. had picked anyone else.
Yet Keller received an offer several years ago that might have harmed his chances. Sometime in 2000 or early 2001, when Joseph Lelyveld was in his final months as executive editor and Keller was managing editor, Keller was asked whether he would consider becoming the editor of the Boston Globe, which is owned by the New York Times Company.
It was hardly a crazy idea. Times Company management knew that the next executive editor of the Times would want to choose his own deputy. By moving to Boston, Keller would have had a chance to edit the company’s second-most-important newspaper. But Keller turned it down, citing family considerations.
"The conversation began and ended in the space of about a minute," Keller told me, adding that his "only nonnegotiable demand" was not to leave New York. He added: "It was really much more of a hypothetical question" (see "Goodbye to All That," News and Features, July 20, 2001).
Thus, when Globe editor Matt Storin retired in 2001, he was replaced not by Keller but by Marty Baron, then the executive editor of the Miami Herald — who, ironically, emerged along with Los Angeles Times managing editor Dean Baquet as one of the most-talked-about possible successors to Howell Raines had Sulzberger decided to pass Keller by once again. (More irony: Keller told me that he recommended Baron for the Globe job to both Sulzberger and Globe publisher Richard Gilman.)
And when Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd were forced to resign in the aftermath of the Jayson Blair scandal, Keller was tanned, rested, and ready. He is giving up one of the best jobs in journalism — writing an every-other-Saturday column for the op-ed page and contributing occasional long pieces to the Times Magazine. But obviously he never lost his desire for the top job.
Baron is apparently out of the running for the number-two position, having told both his own paper and the Boston Herald that he’s staying in his current job. According to a report in the New York Post last Thursday, Baron was spotted at the Times a day earlier. Sulzberger told the Washington Post that he offered the job to Keller on Thursday. Judging from the timing, it would appear that Sulzberger had already made up his mind, and that he brought Baron down to New York as a courtesy.
In any event, it makes little sense for Sulzberger to create chaos at the Globe simply to fill the number-two slot at the Times.
Were Baron to leave, Globe publisher Richard Gilman would have to start from scratch. Two of the logical internal candidates from 2001 — managing editor Greg Moore and Washington-bureau chief David Shribman — are presumably no longer available, having left within the past year to take the top editing jobs at the Denver Post and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette respectively.
Moreover, Keller, like Raines before him, deserves the chance to choose his own number two.
Keller ascends to the top of the Times masthead amid an overflow of goodwill, which poured out in the voluminous coverage linked from Jim Romenesko’s MediaNews.org site on Tuesday. Though Raines was reportedly hard-charging and abusive to some of his staff, he was also a great journalist who presided over an unprecedented seven Pulitzers a little more than a year ago. But just when feelings toward Raines might have been softening a bit, news accounts make it clear that many Times insiders were enraged by his self-serving appearance on The Charlie Rose Show last Friday.
Yet Keller has some real problems with which to contend, and they are by no means all of Raines’s making. The Times has never adequately explained how it managed to be so wrong about former Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee, who was accused — unjustly, it would appear — of nuclear espionage. That story played out on Lelyveld and Keller’s watch, as did the Times’ never-ending coverage of the largely bogus Whitewater saga.
The matter of Rick Bragg, a long-time star writer who resigned this spring after it was revealed that he relied on an uncredited stringer to do much of his reporting, may have represented the visible tip of a much larger problem — again, one of many years’ standing.
And just this past Monday, the Times published both an "Editors' Note" and a 2100-word story by one of its top business reporters, Diana Henriques, in order to retract a July 7 piece by Lynette Holloway about a controversial independent-record-company executive named Steve Gottlieb.
According to Henriques, Gottlieb did not lose control of his company and is not a particularly litigious sort of guy. Other than that, Holloway wrote a great story.
As Emily Litella would say, "Never mind."
Issue Date: July 18 - 24, 2003
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