Bill Keller Told Cheney Aide Liberal Bias Was "Relatively Rare" in NYT

The nation's top newspaper men think only an unsophisticated rube sees liberal bias as a persistent, intentional application of media muscle. In his book Cheney: The Untold Story of America's Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President, Stephen Hayes of Weekly Standard fame reprints an E-mail that New York Times executive editor Bill Keller sent to Cheney spokesman Kevin Kellems in 2004 in which he denied that his paper has an agenda, and there are "even a few people who think the news coverage and editorial page operate in lockstep as part of a liberal cabal. The vice president is much too experienced and sophisticated, I suspect, to really believe that." Keller admitted stories occasionally show "liberal assumptions," but "I think those instances are relatively rare, and I fight to filter them our [sic] and deplore them when they get into the paper." He also claimed in his own paper's defense that Team Clinton "also had a lot of Times-haters at the top."

Keller wrote after the Times made a whiny public display of protest- with a great degree of arrogance and entitlement -against how the vice president did not include a seat for a Times reporter on his press plane:

I know there are some people who actually believe that the Times has a partisan or ideological "agenda" - the favorite word of critics on the right AND the left. There are even a few people who think the news coverage and editorial page operate in lockstep as part of a liberal cabal. The vice president is much too experienced and sophisticated, I suspect, to really believe that. I won't pretened that reporters' stories are never shaped by liberal bias (more accurately liberal assumptions about the world) but I think those instances are relatively rare, and I fight to filter them our [sic] and deplore them when they get into the paper. But that's not an "agenda."

I'm pretty sure your boss understands that when reporters inject a "gotcha" attitude into their prose, their agenda usually has nothing to do with bias or conviction, it has to do with getting their stories on the front page and making their competitors envious. That, plus an eagerness to prove they have not been "spun"; when it comes to dealing with politicians and public officials, there is often a reluctance to seem naive, credulous, or "in the pocket" of people they cover. All of this sometimes leads reporters to write tendentious language or to pump up little facts into doubtful stories, and it's part of our job to edit out those excesses. This was just as true in the Clinton administration (which also had a lot of Times-haters at the top) as it is in this administration. So it doesn't entirely explain why some officials at senior levels in this administration regard the Times with such scorn.

This a typically self-defensive whopper, made without any serious attempt to marshal evidence. It's "just as true" that Vice President Gore drew as much negative coverage as Dick Cheney? On the wider point, that nasty anti-Republican articles are manufactured because of intense media competition rather than ideological animus: so if the Times and The Washington Post are competing to see which one can be nastier to Cheney for commercial reasons, why should that make him more agreeable to cooperate? It doesn't matter whether it's left-wing "idealism" or competitive careerism that makes for Times hatchet jobs. What counts is what the Times reader was told. Keller would surely tell the conservative media critic it's unfair to "mind read" liberal bias, but it's at least as questionable to "mind read" the lack of it.

Keller wrote that perhaps the liberal-bias charge is a tactic to move newspaper copy to the right: "I suspect there are some people who believe if they scream 'Liberal agenda! Liberal agenda!' long enough, we'll overcompensate by writing stories they like. Or, if they make a show of not inviting us to briefings, not including us on official trips, that we'll behave as they like."

To use some Keller lingo, I'm sure Keller knows that conservatives are much too experienced and sophisticated to believe that there's any viable method of keeping fist-shaking liberal bias out of the New York Times. Cheney may have made the simple calculation that journalists who hate you and see you as a neocon warmongerer are not the best traveling companions.

Hayes also relayed that Keller knows the score, conceding that the media establishment's biases cut against conservatives like Cheney, as he explained that the media's role is not to "support" leaders, but ought to be to "figure out what they believe and why," whether they're Democrat or Republican:

I think the media, including the Times, but also most other mainstream newspapers, news magazines, and television - has a more difficult time doing this with conservatives than with liberals. The reasons for that are probably too obvious and too complicated to go into here, but it's been a pet cause of mine at the Times to make a special effort to understand and portray conservatives in a way that's not necessarily flattering, but three-dimensional, and that an honest conservative would regard as fair.

Hayes reported that Keller finishes his letter with a message about how granting access to the Times inevitably results in better coverage, contrasting the coverage of Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary, and John Ashcroft, the attorney general. Wolfowitz spent time with Keller for a long piece he wrote for the New York Times Magazine, Hayes noted. The payoff for Wolfowitz, said Keller, was that "a considerable number of NYT readers found themselves reassessing the man, or at least understanding him on a different level." Ashcroft, by contrast would never open himself up and "he still lives in the land of the stereotype." Hayes added: "His message was not so subtle: so does Dick Cheney."

This is where citizens and journalism scholars should all realize that this is the transparent and raw exercise of media power. This is Keller making a threat: surrender to our reporter or we will stick to portraying you as Darth Vader. This kind of bullying might be the way to get the job done, but it's at odds with the idealistic Hollywood legend of reporters as Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman with no aims other than hustling to save our democracy. Washington reporters are no better or worse than politicians in pursuing their own self-interest and claiming it's the national interest.