New York Times Editor Bill Keller Tells All on WikiLeaks and Julian Assange


The New York Times posted the cover story for this week’s Sunday magazine online today, in which executive editor Bill Keller details his newspaper’s relationship with WikiLeaks, and specifically, the rogue organization’s egomaniac honcho Julian Assange. Like any good media chief, Keller does well to slight his ally-cum-enemy in Assange, while commending his own organization for a job well done. It’s a doozy of a long-read! Plus, financial details on the Times‘ more profitable competitor (?) and newspaper parties at Sundance in a special NYT-centric edition of Press Clips, our daily media round-up. Onward — and always remember to leave a tip.

Us Against Assange: Keller’s story, “Dealing With Julian Assange and the Secrets He Spilled,” is actually an excerpt from the introduction of the Times‘ very first e-book, Open Secrets: WikiLeaks, War and American Diplomacy, to be released on Monday. (The same press release also announces Keller’s new role as a columnist for the forthcoming reboot of New York Times Magazine.)

Keller writes that WikiLeaks “generated much breathless speculation that something — journalism, diplomacy, life as we know it — had profoundly changed forever,” and clearly this essay, and eventually e-book, hopes to be a definitive account from an official, inside source. But along with procedural detail of how the Times got involved with WikiLeaks through the British paper the Guardian, Keller reveals a lot of personal color, mostly about Assange. It’s not flattering and Keller writes early on, “We regarded Assange throughout as a source, not as a partner or collaborator, but he was a man who clearly had his own agenda.”

After his first meeting with a Times editor in London, Assange is described as “lanky, with pale skin, gray eyes and a shock of white hair that seizes your attention…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 as his infamy grew, Assange blossomed into a “cult figure” with “his hair dyed and styled” wearing “fashionably skinny suits and ties.”

Less superficially, Assange, according to Keller, is “arrogant, thin-skinned, conspiratorial and oddly credulous.” Plus, he’s weird:

Schmitt told me that for all Assange’s bombast and dark conspiracy theories, he had a bit of Peter Pan in him. One night, when they were all walking down the street after dinner, Assange suddenly started skipping ahead of the group. Schmitt and Goetz stared, speechless. Then, just as suddenly, Assange stopped, got back in step with them and returned to the conversation he had interrupted.

Assange is painted as angry — “openly contemptuous of the American government and certain that he was a hunted man” — while the Times is super serious. “From the beginning, we agreed that in our articles and in any documents we published from the secret archive, we would excise material that could put lives at risk,” Keller writes.

And when the paper dared to cross Assange with a front-page profile examining his ego and eccentricities, he struck back, switching from “from wary to hostile” with regards to Keller and his team. Assange called it “a smear” and eventually had a “tantrum” in the offices of the Guardian: “‘Where’s the respect?’ he demanded. ‘Where’s the respect?'”

Respect is reserved for America and its government, Keller insinuates:

The journalists at The Times have a large and personal stake in the country’s security. We live and work in a city that has been tragically marked as a favorite terrorist target, and in the wake of 9/11 our journalists plunged into the ruins to tell the story of what happened here.

Meanwhile, “Julian Assange has been heard to boast that he served as a kind of puppet master, recruiting several news organizations, forcing them to work in concert and choreographing their work.” Keller bristles at not being viewed as in charge: “This is characteristic braggadocio — or, as my Guardian colleagues would say, bollocks.”

Read the entire sprawling essay here. And elsewhere in the New York Times universe…

Money, Problems, Etc.: Demand Media, known far and wide as a “content farm,” which doles out quick, cheap assignments to an army of decentralized (and low-paid) freelancers, went public today, and sits pretty with a valuation of about $1.5 billion. As the entire internet was quick to point out, that’s about the same as the Times, morals, journalism and all. But that doesn’t mean Demand is not dumb!

Party Out West: The lightest of today’s New York Times tidbits comes from Gatecrasher in the Daily News, which reports that the Times “don’t need no stinkin’ celebrities to start a party.” That’s right: at Sundance, where Page One, a film about the paper’s media desk premiered, our local celebs had some fun:

Media types had a last hurrah at Sundance Monday night with a shindig thrown by Times reporters Melena Ryzik, Brooks Barnes, Brian Stelter and David Carr. We’re sure the recently slimmed-down Stelter looked fetchingly svelte in the hot tub.

But serious reporters always have to be such bubble-bursters. Stelter, who has indeed lost a bunch of weight, took to his personal blog to refute the gossip page’s silly assumption about his swimming. “For the record,” he writes, “I didn’t get in the hot tub Monday night. But I like that the New York Daily News thinks I did.”

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 26, 2011

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