< Executive Editor Bill Keller on The New York Times and WikiLeaks


Friday, December 03, 2010

BOB GARFIELD: New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller has been quite open about standards his paper applies when deliberating whether to publish this sort of material and the paper has reported on many of the latest revelations, some seemingly sensitive, some confirming conventional wisdom, and some simply Wikilicious. The paper obtained the cables from the British Guardian, not from WikiLeaks itself, as The Times had for previous document dumps. For reasons not entirely known but easy to guess at, including The Times’ critical reporting of WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange and The Times’ failure to link to the WikiLeaks website after the last document dump, relationships between the paper and WikiLeaks may be estranged for good. Bill Keller, welcome back to the show.

BILL KELLER: Thank you.

BOB GARFIELD: Now, the stories so far have been revealing but unsurprising, it seems to me, and not especially indicting.


BOB GARFIELD: It’s made me wonder whether WikiLeaks is a legitimate whistleblower in this case or just a looter. Has Julian Assange shed light here with the release of 253,000 cables or has he just smashed a very big store window?

BILL KELLER: I think that the documents have more value than your metaphor gives them credit for. I mean, realistically, you know, 99 percent of what you read in the newspaper or hear on the radio in news programs does not fundamentally upend your understanding of the world; it’s incremental. And so, the idea that this data dump has to somehow expose unsuspected perfidy in high places or completely confound your understanding of how the world works is, to me, a, a kind of ridiculous standard. I think this stuff is absolutely fascinating and, you know, reading these stories is kind of like a graduate seminar in how we relate to Russia, how the Arab world relates to Iran, and so on.

BOB GARFIELD: What were the internal deliberations about how to go about combing through the information and what was appropriate to report and what was not?

BILL KELLER: Well, we had Andy Lehren, who is one of our computer reporting guys, spent 14-, 16-hour days doing searches, pulling together cables that had similar themes, similar characters, and then reporters read them and did their own supplementary searches of the database. You know, it was a familiar but quite complicated exercise in journalistic choreography. The more sensitive judgments of, you know, how do you deal with cables that might have information that could put lives at risk or somehow compromise national security, that was the subject of lots and lots and lots of conversations. Some stuff was obvious. You know, there were people who if you put their name in the newspaper as somebody who’s talking to the American Embassy, they were gonna be in real trouble, maybe in jail or killed. And those just come out right off the bat. And then there are the sort of instances where you know that somebody’s gonna be embarrassed by it but nothing fundamental is going to be harmed by publishing it, and those are sort of easy to include in. And then there are things that fall in the middle, for example, cables that tell you where unguarded fissile material is located. Even if you think everybody sort of knows it, it’s probably not a good thing to put in the newspaper.

BOB GARFIELD: On the subject of embarrassing people, the one story, the one revelation that has most gotten my attention is about the relationship between China and North Korea, and the cable from a South Korean diplomat which suggests that China would be just fine with a single unified Korea under South Korean control, so long as no U.S. troops were in the former demilitarized zone. You know, when you’re talking about a cornered rat regime such as North Korea’s, with a history of acting out when it’s in a situation like this, you know, my thought was could this revelation not just embarrass them but really trigger something catastrophic? Did it come up? Did you have those discussions?

BILL KELLER: We did have those kinds of discussions and, you know, that’s where the value of having journalists who've covered these stories over the years supply some context, try to truth test, is useful, rather than just having raw data sitting up on a website for people to come explore. As we presented it, this is the view of a South Korean diplomat. They believe that if North Korea collapsed and the Koreas reunited, China could live with that, which is interesting but I don't think particularly provocative. I mean, you know, without any provocation from us or WikiLeaks, North Korea apparently fired on a South Korean ship and more recently lobbed artillery onto a South Korean island, so, you know, what the North Koreans are likely to do or exactly what provokes them is really kind of beyond my - understanding.

BOB GARFIELD: In the United States we have seen things like the willy-nilly classification of documents and the invocation of national security at every turn to cover up political embarrassment, or worse. But diplomacy is another matter altogether. Is it ever just plain inappropriate for a newspaper to disclose diplomatic secrets?

BILL KELLER: Look, I absolutely believe that governments have an obligation to keep certain things secret, you know, not just diplomacy – military operations, the codes to the nuclear weapons. I mean, there are lots of things that governments have the right to keep secret. It’s their job to keep it secret. It’s not the press’ job to do that. And when they, for one reason or another, fail to do that, either through something like WikiLeaks or because everybody at the White House is blabbing to Bob Woodward, you know, then we have a choice to make about what we do with those secrets. We do sometimes withhold them but, you know, it’s a choice you have to make case by case.

BOB GARFIELD: So this time around, The Times was privy to the documents but not under any embargo with WikiLeaks. You were –


BILL KELLER: That’s correct.

BOB GARFIELD: - cut out of the deal this time, but in the past, you have worked with the organization in what I believe you've described more as a reporter/source relationship. And you've rejected entirely the idea that it is any kind of partnership. But in doing business with Julian Assange, who is nearly indiscriminate in what he will post, does The Times and The Guardian and Der Spiegel and El Pais, do they become enablers of an organization that may or may not be itself neutral in going about doing what it’s doing?

BILL KELLER: I don't - think so, except in the sense that any time you publish information from a source you’re giving them, you know, a megaphone, I guess. But I do sincerely believe that the relationship is very much the traditional one of source and journalist. He supplied a lot of raw material and, except for the timing of the release, which was something that we worked out as much with the other news organizations as with WikiLeaks, there was no discussion of what we would write, no discussion of an agenda that we were trying to serve. And, in fact, judging by some of the things that Mr. Assange has said about The New York Times, he certainly doesn't regard us as an institution that shares his agenda.

BOB GARFIELD: Bill, thank you, as always, for joining us.

BILL KELLER: You’re welcome. Thanks for having me.

BOB GARFIELD: Bill Keller is the Executive Editor of The New York Times.

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