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The Keller Instinct

In my role as media critic, I only intersected a few times with former New York Times executive editor Howell Raines, and those experiences weren't particularly satisfying or enlightening. (One of them was memorable however. To the best of my recollection, Raines is the only person I've interviewed who responded to a question by saying "no comment" and then insisting that the "no comment" was off the record.)

Contrast that locked-down fortress mentality with last week's letter that Raines's successor -- Bill Keller -- wrote to his own newspaper Keller's letter responding to a July 31 New York Times Book Review essay by Richard A. Posner. Posner's screed

In his fairly lengthy letter, Keller certainly wasn't kind to Posner's flawed critique, calling "his review of the latest crop of press-bashing books...mostly a regurgitation, as tendentious and cynical as the worst of the books he consumed."

But regardless of what Keller said, the most important thing is that he said it -- and once again displayed his willingness to join the fray and his affection for the media scrum. Those qualities explain why his two-year-old regime has helped to demystify and humanize the powerful and too-arrogant institution that was The New York Times.

On Keller's first official day as executive editor (July 30, 2003) -- as he took over a newsroom traumatized by the Jayson Blair scandal and bitterly divided under Raines's stewardship -- the Times culture changed. Keller endorsed recommendations from the paper's Siegal Committee that included, among other things, the appointment of an ombudsman -- a self-policing and reader outreach mechanism that the Times had long and stubbornly resisted. full Siegal Committee report for you gluttons for punishment


But more than any committee report or recalibration of the paper's culture and practices, it is Keller's willingness to talk -- to critics, inquisitors, and by extension the public -- that is the signature of the new Times boss, at least to the external world.


He is, for one thing, a good interview with a penchant for surprisingly straight, even colorful, talk. Interviewed by The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz last month about the appointment of former Timesman Dean Baquet as editor of the Los Angeles Times, Keller said he hoped Baquet would fight "fair" in trying to poach journalists from Keller's paper.

"He has this habit of telling recruits there's something in the New York water that makes your penis fall off," Keller declared, in a puckish turn of phrase. Keller and Kurtz

Last month, a rather enjoyable email exchange between Keller and Los Angeles Times op-ed page editor Nick Goldberg showed up on the wildly popular media web site run by Jim Romenesko. Email exchange. Keller's response to a Goldberg request that incarcerated Times reporter Judy Miller respond to a Michael Kinsley column challenging a reporter's right to protect a source was pretty acidic.

"Sadly, Judy is not on a fellowship at some writers' colony," he wrote. "She is in JAIL." Hey, Keller certainly wasn't any crankier than the typical Romenesko letter writer -- and in many ways, he was a better read.


Media Log is by no means the first place to propound this theory. Six months ago, Jack Shafer wrote a fine piece on Slate.com lauding Keller's willingness to talk to reporters, debate critics, and speak with laudable candor. Hell 'n' Keller


Shafer called him "the most accessible executive editor in the newspaper's history" and applauded him "for taking his lumps in public and for returning them in professional fashion." He even went so far as to call this new openness "adorable."


Even with his quasi-movie star looks, adorable might be a stretch for Keller. He is, after all, a staunch defender of his institution who doesn't suffer fools very gladly and who wields a pretty pointy pen. But by regularly and eagerly adding his voice to the cacophonous chorus of media debate and chatter, he turns out to be -- in the good sense of the term -- one of the boys.

And it's been a while since you could say that about the top man at the Times.
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