By: Joe Strupp
New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller is reluctant to use the paper’s blockbuster story on Eliot Spitzer’s prostitution link as a way to fire back at critics who have taken shots at the paper in recent weeks — particularly for its controversial story linking John McCain to a Washington, D.C., lobbyist.
But a day after Spitzer resigned in disgrace following the Times’ revelations that he had frequented a high-priced hooker ring on several occasions, Keller, in a phone interview with E&P, clearly saw some room to boast.
“It certainly has had the same volume of reaction, sometimes a good story is just a good story,” he said about comparisons to the McCain report. “We certainly took our share of heat on the McCain story. The McCain story is one that I am still proud of and stand by.”
When asked if the Spitzer reporting in any way proves conservative critics wrong who have accused the paper of unfairly going after story subjects or choosing them based on political leanings, Keller said only, “I think it would be great if people looked at this story and said, ‘this is why a newspaper exists and why they are important.’ It requires having really good reporters and really good editors.”
Although he is proud of the paper for digging up an important story and revealing relevant secrets about an elected official, Keller said he had no joy in seeing such a tragedy unfurled. “You can?t feel unbridled glee about something that is a personal tragedy and a political upheaval for the state,” he stated. But then added, “clearly, there is a lot of satisfaction in reporting it.”
Keller could not help but take a small shot at New York’s tabloids, which have squeezed the story for every bit of tawdry copy possible. As the Times continued its lead coverage on Wednesday, being the first to reveal the identity of the prostitute known as “Kristen” and getting her first comments on the incident, Keller said, “I do think it is significant that the woman involved was more comfortable telling her story to a responsible newspaper rather than have it broken in the tabloids or on entertainment television.”
He went on to point out that the paper could not do such work without a complete staff: “This is why it’s so important that we have not eviscerated our newsroom and shrunk our reporting and editing staffs. You need that talent.”
Keller then recounted his busy weekend as the story neared completion, saying he got on a plane last Saturday for Paris knowing the Times was close to breaking the story of Spitzer and his prostitution links. But he still felt comfortable leaving town and allowing his underlings to oversee the story.
“It looked like it was going to break imminently,” recalls Keller, who was heading to France for meetings at the Times-owned International Herald Tribune. “They had a fair amount and by the time I left, they had a lot of good reporting. It wasn’t publishable, but our confidence was high. It was not the kind of story you want to get wrong.”
Arriving in Paris early Sunday, Keller says he did not seek to run coverage from overseas, leaving the specifics to Managing Editor Jill Abramson and others. “I always feel comfortable leaving the place to Jill,” he said.
But he remained in contact with editors as the story progressed. He says Spitzer’s office was clearly aware that the paper was closing in on the story over the weekend with requests by his staff for Spitzer’s schedule and other background related to dates he allegedly visited the prostitutes.
“The first threshold was getting to the point where we felt comfortable going to Spitzer with it,” Keller said. “Over the weekend, they were asking his office about his schedule. That might have alerted them to something. I would be surprised if they were not alerted to the fact that we were on this story.”
Keller offered few details on what was missing as the Sunday night print deadlines passed, but said, “it was nailing down a couple of crucial details and giving them a chance to respond.” When asked if Spitzer’s office ever requested a delay in the story’s posting on the Web, Keller said, “not that I am aware of.”
Keller said he spoke with Abramson on Monday after editors in New York were confident the story was ready to go, but he played no part in editing the copy or otherwise overseeing coverage, he said. “They weren’t ready to break it until Monday,” he remembers. “I talked to Jill, but by then it was solid. She ran me through the details of how the story was crafted.”
Keller said he sought to leave Paris on Monday, two days earlier than originally planned, but could not get out until Tuesday. “Not to come back and run the coverage, but come back and watch,” he said. “It is exhilarating to be in a newsroom when it is banging away on a good story.”