- The Washington Times - Monday, July 14, 2003

The New York Times named columnist Bill Keller as its new executive editor yesterday, bringing some closure to its high-profile identity crisis.

Mr. Keller replaces Howell Raines, who resigned June 5 after weeks of distress at the paper after an unchecked young reporter falsified 36 stories, generating heavy criticism and transforming the Times into a textbook case of journalistic folly.

The paper yesterday described the Keller appointment as ending “five tumultuous weeks.” Order, ostensibly, has been restored.

“I’m honored and exhilarated,” Mr. Keller said in a statement. “This news organization is a national treasure. I will do everything in my power to uphold its high standards, preserve its integrity and build on its achievements.”

A chastened Times has now become deft at delivering pre-emptive mea culpas.

Even while announcing its new leader, the paper ran a 2,100-word correction yesterday for an inaccurate July 7 business story profiling a recording executive, revealing “fundamental misunderstandings of the subject, scope and status of the legal proceedings discussed,” according to an editor’s note to readers.

The Times is intent on showing that a new day has dawned, yesterday describing the new editor as “soft-spoken … in contrast to the public persona of Mr. Raines.”

Mr. Keller, 54, has been a columnist and senior writer at the Times since 2001, after spending four years as managing editor. He joined the Times in 1984 and had also served as foreign editor, bureau chief and foreign and stateside correspondent; he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for his coverage of the Soviet Union.

His recent columns have included “Why Colin Powell Should Go,”and “God and George W. Bush,” which asked, “Is President Bush a religious zealot or does he just pander to that crowd?”

Little has changed at the paper, according to some.

“The New York Times replaces one liberal executive editor with another one,” observed Brent Baker of the Media Research Center yesterday.

Mr. Keller takes over July 30 from Joseph Lelyveld, the former Times executive editor who came out of retirement temporarily to see 1,200 newsroom staffers through weeks of difficulty after Times reporter Jayson Blair was accused of plagiarism by another newspaper in late April.

An internal investigation found other incidents; Mr. Blair resigned May 1, followed by Mr. Raines, and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd as well.

The Times was savaged by diatribes and finger-wagging analyses from print and broadcast observers who either mourned or celebrated the demise of “the paper of record” or the “gray lady.”

But Mr. Raines also came under attack for his vigorous but faulty management style, ultimately telling PBS’ Charlie Rose Friday that he emerged from the scandal with “more arrows than Custer’s horse.”

Yesterday, Mr. Keller told his staff that he did not see journalism as “an endless combat mission” and suggested his employees try “a little more savoring of life. … That will enrich your work as much as a competitive pulse rate will.”

There are still some post-Raines rumbles, however.

In his PBS interview, Mr. Raines said he was sent to the newsroom by publisher Arthur Sulzberger “to be a change agent, to lead a talented staff that was settled into a kind of lethargic culture of complacency, into being a performance culture.”

Mr. Sulzberger assured his newsroom yesterday, “There’s no complacency here. Never has been. Never will be.”

The Times self-examination continues, new editor or not. A committee of staff members and outside journalists has been investigating newsroom policies and will report to Mr. Sulzberger later this month.

Both Mr. Raines and reporter Mr. Blair are considering book projects, the former on journalism practices, the latter on his experiences as media pariah.

Contact Jennifer Harper at jharper@washingtontimes.com or 202/636-3085.

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