Bill Keller Speaks Out On Judy Miller, Iraq War Coverage, And Fox News

New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller says one of his biggest mistakes as editor was not addressing the paper's misleading pre-Iraq War coverage sooner, including the reporting of former Times writer Judy Miller.

Keller tells Media Matters that he is “not at all” surprised that Miller ended up at the “conservative” Fox News Channel after she left the Times under a cloud of controversy related to her Iraq reporting.

Keller, who announced Thursday that in September he will leave the post he has held since July 2003, said: “Judy was the author of a lot of those stories, and I should have dealt with the stories and with her I think as the sort of first order of business when I took the job rather than waiting until the following year.”

Keller was referring to the unusual editor's note the Times published on May 26, 2004, in which it admitted many of its pre-war stories about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq -- a number of which were reported by Miller -- misrepresented the situation before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

“The whole Judy Miller WMD experience was ... one of the low points of the last eight years,” Keller said.

Keller, who took over as editor in 2003, did so in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal that forced the departure of former executive editor Howell Raines and former managing editor Gerald Boyd. It also prompted the Times to institute new safeguards for accuracy and plagiarism.

Keller said he did not want to add to the post-Blair scandal atmosphere by correcting the WMD reporting that soon. But says he should have.

“When I came in, I thought I sort of hate this business of, you come in and you immediately start pointing a finger of blame at your predecessor.

”I covered the Soviet Union and that is what Soviet leaders would always do. They sort of come in and they establish their bona fides by trashing their predecessor. [It was] partly that and it was also I wanted to kind of strike a positive tone in the early days.

“People, I thought, did not need another scandal and so I let it fester for a year. ...What I should have done when I came in was ... write that mea culpa and explain to readers, 'You know, look, we wrote some bad stories in the run-up to the war. I don't think it was out of any malice, I think it was we kind of fell for the conventional wisdom. But, you know, and we've learned from it.' Instead, I let a year go by when a lot of people, particularly people on the left, became disenchanted with the Times because they saw it as having been cheerleaders for the war.”

“I think I could have saved the paper a lot of trouble and some damage by dealing with that much sooner.”

Miller did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday.

Keller also said that Miller's 2005 jailing on contempt of court charges for refusing to reveal a source in the Valerie Plame scandal made it difficult to criticize her then.

“One of the reasons that we didn't want to be seen chastising Judy was she was facing a threat that was tied up in a principle we believed in, which is you have to honor your commitments to sources.”

Miller is now a Fox News contributor and makes regular appearance on Fox News Watch, the network's media criticism show.

Keller said he is “not at all” surprised that Miller ended up at Fox.

“The places that she has written for are Fox and The Wall Street Journal op-ed pages -- the two where I have encountered her work since leaving the Times,” said Keller. “I think she left with a considerable feeling of bitterness about the Times, so those would be naturally hospitable environments for her. ... We now know because of things that she's written that her viewpoint on a lot of subjects is comfortably at home in those venues.”

Keller was critical of Fox News, however, saying that its false claims of being “fair and balanced” actually hurt all news outlets that truly strive to be fair and balanced.

“Fox is perfectly entitled to be a conservative news organization. ... I will always defend their right to be that. My criticism of Fox is that a lot of the time they pretend that they're not. And I think that just tends to contribute to cynicism about the media. People say, 'Well Fox claims to be fair and balanced, but they're not. You claim to be fair and balanced, you must not be either.' And so all news organizations, including the ones that try very hard to play fair and to be even-handed in their reporting and writing get tarred by the Fox brush.”

According to Keller, “People see Fox News, they recognize that it's conservative. Its commentators are conservative; some of the time its news programs are overtly conservative. They see that and they see that its slogan is 'fair and balanced' and then they see other news organizations that say, 'Yes, we really try to be even-handed and impartial.' And they know Fox is misrepresenting themselves, so they think everybody else is, too.”

Keller also said that he worries people do not seek out many different viewpoints of news today. Still, he remained hopeful that many news organizations would continue to strive for fair reporting and not go overboard either on the left or the right.

“I've always found it a little worrisome that people can select a news diet that just suits their prejudices. If you're a liberal, you can put together a menu of web sites that's only liberal and, if you're conservative you can put together a menu that's only conservative, and so your ideas never get challenged. And I think that's not healthy.

”But I don't think that everybody -- that every website and every news organization is going to gravitate to the right or left. I think there are and there always will be news organizations that really strive to provide you with the information you need to make up your own mind."