On Sunday, in its magazine section The New York Times today offered what it calls the backstory on its publication of the stolen WikiLeaks documents. It includes the intriguing fact that the White House didn't try very hard to deter publication, but the report by executive editor Bill Keller mostly reads like house propaganda and a Pulitzer application.
There is a laugh-out-loud moment. It comes when Keller writes that "it is our aim to be impartial in our presentation of the news."
It's hard to imagine he believes that. Certainly nobody else does.
The upshot of Keller's piece, which appears in the magazine section and an e-book, is that you'll have to look elsewhere if you want truth or honest introspection. For that, I recommend "Gray Lady Down," a book that gives the backstory of what has gone wrong at The Times itself.
Author William McGowan has compiled a timely indictment of how the paper lost its way. He catalogs well-known mistakes and the cheerleading and other none-too-subtle ways it puts its thumb on the scales of key stories.
He shows how its news coverage of President Obama, gay marriage, immigration, the military, the Duke "rape" case, radicalized Muslims, the Ground Zero mosque, and the war on terror are riddled with omissions, distortions and biases.
McGowan blames "an insular group-think" for turning the paper "into a tattered symbol of liberal orthodoxy," adding, "How deeply compromised its principles have become are questions inextricably entwined with the Times' ideological commitments."
As someone forever grateful that The Times gave me my start, I read "Gray Lady Down" with anger and sadness. Great Times editors, led by the legendary Abe Rosenthal and Arthur Gelb, created a model of integrity and fairness for American newspapers.
But the golden age of standards is but a memory in today's Times. As a friend says, the paper is like a rebel from the 1960s that refuses to grow up.
Witness Keller's attempt to justify his ties to Julian Assange, the anti-American anarchist behind WikiLeaks. To convince readers he treated Assange like any other source, Keller repeats a reporter's churlish description of the cyber-outlaw: "He was alert but disheveled, like a bag lady walking in off the street, wearing a dingy, light-colored sport coat and cargo pants, dirty white shirt, beat-up sneakers and filthy white socks that collapsed around his ankles. He smelled as if he hadn't bathed in days."
But Keller is stuck with the fact that the Times was a partner with Assange and foreign newspapers in recklessly revealing American secrets about Iraq, Afghanistan and our diplomats around the globe. It negotiated both with the Obama administration and Assange. When the White House flagged materials it thought too dangerous to publish, The Times gave that information to WikiLeaks -- in effect, flagging it for someone eager to damage America.
Keller also reveals his personal bias. He writes that, at the request of the Obama White House, "we agreed to withhold some of this information, like a cable describing an intelligence-sharing program that took years to arrange and might be lost if exposed."
Yet when President George W. Bush had made the same request about key anti-terror programs, Keller writes, "we were unconvinced by his argument and published the story" even though Bush warned The Times would "share the blame for the next terrorist attack."
Bush was right, and that burden still exists. But it's not likely Keller loses sleep over it.
As McGowan argues, the liberal group-think shuts out serious consideration of other views. On routine stories, the result is just lousy journalism.
But because Keller sees his options on national security as simplistically binary -- either a free press or a government veto -- he fails to recognize his duty to exercise voluntary discretion. In a time of war, that is unforgivable.