- Former Executive Editor of The New York Times
- Former NY Times reporter and bureau chief in Moscow
- Worked for the Marshall Project from 2014 to 2019
Bill Keller was the Executive Editor of The New York Times. He was promoted to that position in September 2003 and succeeded Howell Raines, who had been fired because of the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal. Keller stepped down from the post of Executive Editor in June 2011 to become a full-time writer. Keller joined the Marshall Project in March 2014, and he worked there until 2019 when he retired.
Keller was born in June 1949. His father George was an MIT-educated chemical engineer who in 1985 negotiated the $13.3 billion merger of Standard Oil of California and Gulf Oil, and emerged as Chairman of the Board and CEO of the resulting oil company Chevron Corporation.
Bill Keller attended Pomona College in California, where he co-founded The Collage, a counter-culture newspaper that Keller says “existed mainly to indulge our young political leanings.” He graduated in 1970, then worked as a reporter at the Portland Oregonian, the Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, and the Dallas Times Herald. Following this apprenticeship, Keller took jobs as a reporter in the Washington, D.C. bureau of The New York Times (1984-86), then in its Moscow bureau as reporter (1986-88) and bureau chief (1988-91). He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for his reporting about the Soviet Union.
Keller moved to the Republic of South Africa as the Times bureau chief in Johannesburg (1992-95). He returned to the United States in 1995, working as the Times foreign editor (1995-97) and Managing Editor (1997-2001). He was passed over for Executive Editor in 2001 when Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr. instead chose Editorial Page Editor Howell Raines to head the newspaper. Keller remained with the Times as an Op-Ed columnist and senior writer.
Keller’s opinion columns revealed political views that as an editor he says he strove to keep muted. “[Republican] Senators Helms, Gramm and Thurmond,” he wrote on January 12, 2002, “have in common the fact that they harnessed their collective century of seniority to the Taliban wing of the American right.”
“We’ve got a [Bush] administration,” Keller wrote on August 10, 2002, “characterized by blind faith in crony capitalism, a drunken spendthrift’s version of supply-side economics, and a secretive, country-club executive style…. [O]n the merits, wasn’t Mr. Gore right?”
In that same column, Keller wrote that 2000 Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore “ran a bone-headed campaign. A bone-headed campaign he WON, don’t forget. He got 537,179 more popular votes, and only lost the Electoral College thanks to a lot of well-documented funny business. The best estimate of the various investigative post-mortems was that an honest statewide recount would have awarded Florida to Mr. Gore and denied [Supreme Court Justice] Antonin Scalia the role of American kingmaker.”
“Keller’s easy conviction that ‘Gore won,'” wrote Clay Waters of TimesWatch.org, a project of the Media Research Center, “is contradicted by his paper’s own reporting.” Continued Waters: “On November 12, 2001 Times reporters Ford Fessenden and John Broder reported on a review of the Florida vote conducted for a consortium of news organizations: ‘A comprehensive review of the uncounted Florida ballots from last year’s presidential election reveals that George W. Bush would have won even if the United States Supreme Court had allowed the statewide manual recount of the votes that the Florida Supreme Court had ordered to go forward.'”
In 2003, following Raines’ resignation, Keller was chosen to be Executive Editor by Sulzberger over contender Frank Rich, the Times’ Arts & Leisure columnist. “While Raines was indeed a liberal activist,” wrote Clay Waters, “Keller may have even less love for conservatives.”
As one of his first acts as Executive Editor, Keller joined his boss Sulzberger in opposing the return of a Pulitzer Prize awarded in 1932 to the Times Soviet Union correspondent Walter Duranty. Duranty’s reporting covered up Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin‘s systematic starvation of millions of Ukrainian kulak farmers. Duranty took favors from the Communist government, including a mistress, in exchange for concocting this pro-Soviet propaganda. The Times’ hired expert on this matter, Columbia University History Professor Mark von Hagen, wrote: “For the sake of The New York Times’ honor, they should take the prize away.”
“But rather than apologize for publishing pro-Stalinist propaganda and take steps to discredit and disown it,” wrote an investigative reporter for FrontPageMagazine.com, “Sulzberger and Keller have made the surrealistic argument that to exorcise this bloody ghost haunting their house and tainting the honor of the Pulitzer Prize would itself be a Stalinistic act of historical revisionism. To correct a lie with the truth would itself be a lie. To right a wrong is to commit a wrong.”
Keller acknowledged that Duranty’s reporting was “dreadful, a parroting of propaganda.” But, he told one interviewer, “As someone who spent time in the Soviet Union while it still existed, the notion of airbrushing history kind of gives me the creeps.”
Following the resignation of the scandal-engulfed Howell Raines, the Times created a new temporary position of Public Editor to help restore its credibility and named Daniel Okrent to the position as ombudsman for reader complaints and open critic of Times policies.
But when Okrent criticized the Times for reporting its own polls as front-page news while not reporting different or contrary poll results from other news organizations, Keller dismissed his criticism as “an ill-informed swipe” and told his reporters that they did not have to listen to Okrent.
Keller has described himself as a “collapsed Catholic” who is “well beyond lapsed.” He has criticized President Bush’s “public piety” and described Republican Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum as a “Catholic theocrat.”
Keller wrote that Roman Catholic Pope John Paul II “shaped a hierarchy that is intolerant of dissent, unaccountable to its members, secretive in the extreme and willfully clueless about how people live.” He declared that the Catholic Church, like the Soviet Communist Party, “exists first and foremost to preserve its power…. This is, after all, the church that gave us the Crusades and the Inquisition.”
“My stumblebum’s great luck has brought me into contact with some very large people,” said Keller in a 2002 college commencement speech. “Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, Andrei Sakharov, who designed the Soviet nuclear bomb and then became one of Russia’s bravest defenders of human rights, and Nelson Mandela. I keep pictures of all of them in my office.”
A leading leftwing supporter of the March 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Keller explained his position in his article “The I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-A-Hawk Club.” Two days after the invasion, however, Keller penned the column “Why Colin Powell Should Go,” which called for the U.S. Secretary of State’s resignation for having failed to resolve the Iraq crisis diplomatically via the United Nations.
Keller reportedly refused to answer questions from the Times public editor, Byron Calame, on the timing of the December 16, 2005 Times article that revealed details of the National Security Agency’s classified Terrorist Surveillance Program, an initiative that electronically wiretapped the international phone calls and domestic emails of suspected terrorists.
On June 23, 2006, Keller and the Times published an article on yet another classified U.S. program — one that monitored terrorist-related financial transactions through the Belgium-based Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT). United States Congressman Peter King exhorted the Justice Department to prosecute the Times and the confidential sources who had leaked the existence of this counter-terrorism program. (There are laws forbidding the media from revealing classified information that could threaten national security, especially in a time of war.)
In response to criticism aimed at the Times regarding this matter, Keller co-authored an Op-Ed column with Los Angeles Times editor Dean Baquet stating that: “Our job, especially in times like these, is to bring our readers information that will enable them to judge how well their elected leaders are fighting on their behalf and at what price.”