Clueless in Phoenix

For the all-time example of a man whistling past the graveyard, check out Bill Keller’sthis past Friday at the Association of National Advertisers conference in Phoenix. Keller must have downed a double dose of theKool-Aid before taking the stage... I have only one question, come next year’s Association of National Advertisers conference will themasthead still read the way it reads today?
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For the all-time example of a man whistling past the graveyard, check out Bill Keller's jaw dropping comments this past Friday at the Association of National Advertisers conference in Phoenix.

His paper finds itself in the midst of what may turn out to be the worst crisis in its history -- scooped on a daily basis on a story it should own, virtually eliminating itself from covering what could be the biggest scandal of the Bush administration, its credibility crumbling faster than Judy Miller's image as a selfless journalistic martyr -- and what did Keller have to say to a group of ad men and newspaper industry insiders? "It's always darkest before the indictments dawn"? No, just a ringing defense of his paper -- and a verbal slap to bloggers.

"Bloggers recycle and chew on the news," he told the lunching crowd.

No word on how many in his audience choked on their rubber chicken. I'm sure his therapist would have something to say about the timing, because Keller made this assertion just as the blogosphere was at its best -- diving into and carving up the latest developments in the rapidly unfolding Plamegate saga: new Miller notes, an old Rove email, Fitzgerald's "welcoming" letter to Libby and his call to Joe Wilson, Rove's follow up to his follow up to his follow up to his grand jury testimony, Miller's upcoming Tuesday sit down with Fitzgerald.

As The Note put it this morning: "If you aren't spending 90% of your waking time thinking about this, talking about this, and doodling on your jeans about this, then you aren't a member of the Gang of 500, and you probably never will be." In other words, this is THE story of the moment... and the blogosphere is an utterly indispensable tool for following and understanding it.

Yes, some intrepid reporters in the mainstream media are providing key reporting and analysis -- Mike Isikoff at Newsweek, Greg Mitchell of Editor & Publisher, Murray Waas at The National Journal and The American Prospect, and Anna Schneider-Mayerson, Tom Scocca and Gabriel Sherman at the New York Observer are all doing great work. But if you're not reading emptywheel at The Next Hurrah, Jane Hamsher at Firedoglake, Tom Maguire, TalkLeft, Jay Rosen, Mickey Kaus, Larry Johnson, and, dare I say it, the Huffington Post, you're not really getting the full story.

These bloggers are not chewing on the news. They are spitting it out.

But as off-base as Keller's dismissal of bloggers was, it pales in comparison to his "what planet are you living on?" defense of the Times. It was either the most disingenuous rant of the year -- or the most delusional.

As reported by Business Week's Jon Fine, Keller proudly put forth the Times' assets: "'a rigorous set of standards. A journalism of verification' rather than of 'assertion,' and maintaining an 'agnosticism' as where any story may lead. And, borrowing a key buzzword of the day, he said the Times practiced 'transparency,' or, in math-teacher terms, 'we show our work'."

Keller must have downed a double dose of the Times Kool-Aid (followed by a 100 proof chaser or two) before taking the stage.

Let's take these nuggets one at a time, shall we?

Rigorous set of standards? Which ones are those, Bill? The ones about not granting anonymity (and promises of confidentiality) to sources using the paper to promote a partisan agenda? Guess that one slipped under the radar during those tête-à-têtes between Judy and Scooter -- and the high-level discussions that led to the Times throwing itself (and its credibility) behind Miller's self-serving refusal to testify. Nice call, Mr. Sulzberger.

A journalism of verification, not assertion? Like Miller's crackerjack reporting on WMD? In which category would you place her stories on aluminum tubes and the "silver bullet" scientist pointing out chemical weapons? Were these verified or were they the wishful assertions of a true believer? And how does Keller justify his statement to former Times public editor Daniel Okrent that he "did not see a prima facie case for recanting or repudiating the stories"? Which brings us to agnosticism.

Maintaining agnosticism as to where any story may lead? Clearly, Miller was not agnostic on Iraq -- not any more than her buddies in the Bush administration were. And where is the Times' agnosticism when it comes to Plamegate? It has slavishly hewed to the Miller party line, steadfastly refusing to follow where the story may lead. As Jay Rosen put it on "Reliable Sources" on Sunday, the Times "has lost the capacity to tell the truth about itself on this story." Indeed, the Times itself has now become a player in the scandal (see Greg Mitchell on how the sudden appearance of the June notes may have landed the paper in "hot water" with Fitzgerald).

As for the Times practicing transparency and showing its work, did Keller think that Friday was opposite day? Or was he under the impression that he'd been hired to keep the advertising execs he was addressing rolling in the aisles?

Miller and the Times under Sulzberger and Keller, have done everything imaginable to avoid coming clean about this story... to avoid showing their work.

The right time to do so has long since passed. Now it's just a question of how much of the paper's credibility they can preserve. And whether, come next year's Association of National Advertisers conference, the Times masthead will still read the way it reads today.

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