The New York Times executive editor writes to me

The situation is worse at the New York Times than I thought.

Bill Keller, executive editor of the Times, sent me an email the other day. At least I think it is an email to me from the Bill Keller who runs Grey Lady's editorial staff.

Actually, it is quite plausible that Mr. Keller might be writing me. My article on the fake photo published on the New York Times website has spread far and wide in the blogosphere, and it picked up talk radio coverage from some of the big national shows. It even broke through just a bit to cable news talk.

The email came into my Editor's account at from an account carrying the name "Executive Editor Desk" at I suppose that means executive editor Bill Keller wrote it.  But it is unsigned, and one shouldn't make assumptions. Bill Keller ought be the guy sitting at the executive editor's desk.

But maybe 'desk' is a title for a whole department. Quite possibly multiple people work there. Maybe some staff member was tasked to actually write it at Bill Keller's direction. Or maybe someone wrote it all on her or his own. I doubt it is a spoof.

It is even vaguely possible they held a meeting of the executive desk staff to decide how to respond to me. The Olympian attitude of the New York Times makes it unlikely they would take a blogger that seriously. And face it, they are bigger on every metric of importance.

The Tenor

Still, megalomania aside, the disembodied name of the email account is consistent with the minimalism and curiously detached voice typical of something born of a committee.  Here is the whole of it:

Sir, in reply to your article: A caption Saturday, January 14, on with a photograph of damage from a U.S. airstrike in Pakistan misidentified an item in the photograph. Agence France—Presse, the agency that provided the photograph, later changed the caption to report that the item appears to be an unexploded artillery shell, not a piece of a missile from Friday's attack.

It conveys the maximum possible polite distance between us. I guess that's understandable. I have been pretty critical of them. So it is probably out of the question that we'll ever get to the 'Hi Bill,' and 'Hi Tom,' stage of correspondence. But for the purposes of discussion, I am going to refer to the email as being from Bill Keller, simply because it is easier to discuss a human than an abstraction.

Bill Keller's email is entirely factually correct, and it adds information that was not in my article. The problem is what it doesn't say.

The implied message

Keller admits no negligence, so the implied message is that the problem lies with AFP.  Because the French news agency supplied the caption, it really isn't the New York Times' fault. Of course, Keller doesn't say this at all. But if someone consults only the statement, one might dismiss my article.

By extension, my criticism can be categorized as much ado about nothing. I should direct my ire at Agence France—Presse. And it was only a mistaken caption, after all. Big deal.

Someone could make a good case to this effect, but only to someone else who doesn't know the details.

Within the liberal bubble people don't actually soil themselves by visiting the conservative rabble at their websites very often. If people in the bubble become vaguely aware of the criticism I made of the Times, and merely consult the Times' response, they might well assume that I am a hot tempered ignorant blogger (a redundancy to them) who unfairly jumped all over the Times.
There is so much poorly—checked blogger nonsense, out there. Unedited amateurs. Ask any member of the antique media. Many will only want to know what the Times says, and will draw their conclusions based on that Times data alone.

You can see right there between the lines: it wasn't the Times' fault after all.  AFP, the party responsible, already fixed it. The fact that AFP corrected it proves that the locus of the problem was with them, and it wasn't really the error of the Times.

So goes the implicit logic, under the predictable circumstances of future reference to the imbroglio by the bubble inhabitants who matter to the Times.

What's missing

Fundamentally, the email simply doesn't address the basis of my complaint.

I criticized the Times for running the picture without checking. I never implied they created the picture, or did anything other than let it get through their filter. I faulted the Times' (ahem) editing process for appalling sloppiness. Here's the key sentence:

Not only did the editors lack the basic knowledge necessary to detect the fake, they didn't bother to run the photo past anyone with such knowledge before exposing the world to it.

Although I didn't discuss the picture being from AFP, I accused the Times of uncritically accepting a picture that must have been staged. If the artillery shell wasn't used for an attack by a Predator, because Predators don't fire heavy artillery, someone had to bring the shell there and pose it for a picture. We call such artifacts 'propaganda.' In this case, enemy propaganda.

[It was] Not something that would have been fired from a Predator. Indeed, [it was] something that must have been found elsewhere and posed with the ruins and the little boy as a means at pulling of the heartstrings of the gullible readers of the New York Times.

The alacrity with which the New York Times bought into an obviously (to people with real world exposure to the beat) fake photo that made the targeted party look sympathetic is only a symptom. The much larger problem is an editorial staff that lacks a certain diversity of expertise. Not many of the photo editorial staff are familiar with artillery, I'd wager. Certainly nobody who had a say on the picture's publication was.

I thought editors had to know something about the beats they oversaw. Isn't that why editors usually start as reporters?

The New York Times covers war a lot. So does AFP, for that matter. Isn't it a big problem if the editorial guiding hands have no grasp of the tangible nature of the subject matter being covered? How can they be doing their jobs adequately? Obviously, they are prone to manipulation and mistaken perspectives on this critical part of their news coverage. This incident proves that.

The Big Question

What is Keller doing about this breach of misplaced trust on the part of his badly—informed organization? Isn't it his job to fix the problem illustrated by his website having served as a conduit of enemy propaganda?

There is no evidence visible to me that the New York Times is pursuing the matter of how AFP came to supply it with what amounts to a propaganda photo. If they are doing so, it is rather discreet. Call me crazy, but I think it should be of some deep concern that they are being fed fake photos from the French.

The fake photo lives on in other publications, too.  The Times has not exactly done its part to undo the damage it did. The correction it published implicitly puts the blame on AFP.  The misspelling of 'ordnance' as 'ordinance' speaks again to the lack of military exposure of the combined AFP/Times quality assurance effort.

But most importantly, the correction does not address the real significance of the error: the fact that the picture must be a fake, staged with a prop piece of ordnance, not a missile.

Bill Keller must have read my article before he responded to my article, no? If he is in the habit of sending responses to articles he hasn't read, he is even more arrogant and careless than I thought. So assuming he read my article, he knows that he has published a fake picture. And AFP gave it to him.

To quote Bob Dole, Where's the outrage?

Bill Keller's lack of protest over being had, his lack of evident resolve to get to the bottom of the situation, and his unwillingness to confront the actual criticism I made suggest some pretty ugly conclusions. He has been duped and he is content to pretend it is all just a little thing, not his fault, and that doesn't matter very much, anyway. Or so it seems.

Is this really the extent of his regard for publishing the truth?

The executive editor of the New York Times is the most powerful figure in the American media. I don't see a leader effectively confronting his organization's problems. The consequences extend throughout our media structure, whose members too often follow the pilot fish at the New York Times.

Thomas Lifson is the editor and publisher of The American Thinker.

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