Appreciating Bill Keller

New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller steps down to pursue a writing career. Photo by John Niedermeyer.It doesn't seem that long ago when Bill Keller, then a Capitol Hill reporter for The Oregonian, sat across from my desk in the Cannon Office Building and told me I didn't know as much as I thought I did. Keller meant his comment to apply to a particular topic, but I took it as a general observation. As time has advanced, I have reflected often on his comment and agree with him more every day.

So it was an interesting personal moment last week when I heard Keller announce he will step down as executive editor of The New York Times after eight years in the post. Bill characteristically took the occasion of his pending departure to unload about his soon-to-be former job. He described constant crisis management, from low morale on the news staff that he inherited to the atrophy of newspaper bottom lines. Somewhere in there, Keller was involved in parsing and publishing sensitive government documents obtained by WikiLeaks.

When Keller's career and mine coincided in Washington, D.C. in the late 1970s, I saw or talked to him almost daily. He was clearly a cut above most reporters. Tough, but professional. His successful career, which includes a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for his coverage of the break-up of the Soviet Union, attests to his skill.

Keller's acorn seemingly landed a far distance from the oak tree of his father, George Keller, who was chairman and chief executive officer of Chevron. Bill's first job after graduating from Pomona College was to start an independent newspaper. Then he moved to Portland and hooked up with The Oregonian in 1970, later transferring to its Washington. D.C. bureau until he left in 1979. After side trips to the Congressional Quarterly and The Dallas Times Herald, Keller joined The New York Times in 1984 in its Capitol bureau.

He went to Moscow in 1986, becoming bureau chief in 1988. Keller transferred in 1992 as chief of the Times' bureau in Johannesberg, which provided the inspiration for his wife, Emma Gilbey Keller, to write a biography about Winnie Mandela.

Keller then moved to a higher rung of NYT management as foreign editor from 1995-1997 and managing editor from 1997 to 2001. In 2000, he completed the Advanced Management Program at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, the final grooming for the top newsroom job in America. After a stint as an op-ed columnist, Keller ascended to executive editor in July 2003.

Keller's eight years at the helm of the nation's flagship news operation spanned a flameout by financial institutions that are part of the Times' local business beat. The ensuring recession accelerated the economic nosedive by newspapers that saw advertisers abandon ship for other venues, leading the Times to initiate a plan to charge for online content. Keller says that ironically has prompted more subscriptions to the print edition.

However, I am personally most intrigued and impressed by Keller's role in publication of the WikiLeaks papers by the Times. In the interview he gave on NPR, Keller was meticulous in explaining how the Times was drawn into a somewhat unintentional collaboration with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

Keller said he rejected a request by the Obama administration to suppress publication of the papers, but exercised restraint in what was published, as his staff took great care to balance the public's right to read this information versus the need to protect individuals who would be vulnerable by their release, which apparently annoyed Assange.

The voice I heard in that NPR interview was the mature voice I heard across my desk in Washington, D.C. Even if being the big cheese editor was a drag at times, Keller never seemed to lose his zest for the profound role of good journalism. He still knows how to ask tough questions and demand quality answers. There isn't enough of that these days.