Accuracy in Media

The New York Times has appointed Bill Keller as its new executive editor. Keller has been a Times columnist, managing editor, foreign editor and foreign correspondent. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for his coverage of the former Soviet Union. During his tenure as managing editor, the Times won another prize for its coverage of Mexican drug corruption. The paper touted Keller’s appointment as a “reaffirmation of the Times’ core journalistic values.” With Keller’s selection, the Times clearly hopes to silence the “weeks of criticism and speculation” from its competitors.

An early signal of Keller’s dedication to core journalistic values would be his willingness to revisit the Times’ coverage of the Wen Ho Lee nuclear espionage scandal of 1999. Although the Times is credited with initially breaking the story in March 1999, by the following September it was apologizing for failing to “give Dr. Lee the full benefit of the doubt.” Keller was the co-author of the Times’ apology and, in a memo to staff, claimed that he had “overlooked some opportunities” in his management of the Lee coverage.

Beginning in March 1999, the Times ran a series of articles exposing the Los Alamos nuclear espionage scandal and the Clinton administration’s efforts to conceal the matter from Capitol Hill and the public. The Times was among the first to reveal Lee’s identity after then-Energy Secretary Bill Richardson leaked his name to Times’ reporters. But by the end of summer 1999, the Times began to retreat from its earlier coverage when it came under fire from the administration and scientists at Los Alamos.

The Times assigned another reporter, Bill Broad, to the story. Broad, a self-proclaimed “science guy,” relied heavily on accounts from Los Alamos scientists to discredit much of the Times’ earlier coverage. Broad was also among the first to publish accusations that Lee was a victim of racism and ethnic profiling. Much later, it became known that these allegations were at the core of Lee’s defense strategy and intended to distract the public from the scientist’s alleged crimes.

In his book, published in 2001, Lee claims that his lawyers pressured the Times to revise its coverage of his case. He writes that in mid-1999 his lawyers threatened to cut off the Times if the newspaper didn’t change its coverage of his story. He says the threat worked: “Later, when other New York Times reporters began to write about my case and the stories became more balanced, my lawyers resumed answering their questions.” Lee is most likely referring to Broad and his redirection of the Times’ coverage.

The Times reviewed Lee’s book. Needless to say, there was no mention of his lawyers’ reputed manipulation of the paper’s coverage of his case. In 2002, at the Times annual shareholders meeting, Accuracy in Media asked publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., to investigate Lee’s allegations. Since this effort to manipulate the news occurred on Keller’s watch, he could demonstrate his loyalty to core journalistic values by investigating the Times’ coverage of the case.

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