Bill Keller: Democracy is dangerous. Maybe we should tone it down.

If nothing else, New York Times executive editor Bill Keller’s resignation from his position to return to writing columns has accomplished this: instead of inferring his stupidity from years of the Grey Lady’s questionable editorial choices, we can now confirm it directly by reading his essays. After vaingloriously confronting Arianna Huffington — including his now-infamous, yet not inaccurate disparagement of her as “the queen of aggregation” — and variously deriding new media as vapid and emotionless, Keller has now set his sights on the News of the World phone-hacking scandal.

Whether Keller’s latest column, “Why Tyrants Love the Murdoch Scandal,” was penned out of faux-modesty or genuine concern is at once an academic debate and one for which either answer is equally terrifying. For it is not the motive behind his words, but the fact that they exist at all — and in the pages of the vaunted New York Times, no less — that imbues them with such awesome power.

The first signs of trouble appear immediately. Notice, for example, that signature Kellerism: the cloying way he simultaneously feigns to refrain from, while gleefully leaping into, criticism of an arch-nemesis, News Corporation’s Rupert Murdoch. “Nor is this the place to celebrate a rival’s troubles,” he writes, before adding, “True, I did pull from my files and savor the indignant letters we received from News of the World’s top editors last year as we prepared to publish an investigation of the paper’s phone-hacking culture and Scotland Yard’s timidity — work that has been fully vindicated in recent weeks.”

But even such condescension is little more than a distracting aside. His real problem lies in the substance of his column. Keller inexplicably uses the fall from grace (from acceptance? from toleration?) of Murdoch’s News of the World to make a broader point about freedom of the press. Apparently, the police and parliamentary investigation of Murdoch’s publication represents some sort of threat to the democratic principle of free expression. We know this because Keller quotes an anonymous South African friend, who notes that his native country, which is already growing increasingly hostile to an unfettered media presence, may indeed find justification for its repression in the goings-on of the phone-hacking scandal. “‘You can be sure they will use the phone-hacking fallout to help make their case,'” Keller’s bizarrely unnamed friend informs him. “‘Nobody pays much attention to the effect of something like this on little countries like ours.'”

Indeed one doesn’t. And that is precisely because the effect is insignificant, if it exists at all. “Despots love to see a free press behaving badly,” Keller solemnly intones. And yet they seem to do just fine in its absence. There is no more enduring truism of totalitarian states than that they will, and do, seize inspiration for their tyranny in the most absurd places. To censor one’s perfectly legal, and even morally necessary, actions in order to appease the beast beyond our shores is patently insane. Paraphrasing Voltaire, if the phone-hacking scandal did not exist, it would be necessary — for dictators around the world, at least — to invent it. By this logic, perhaps Norway should think twice about imprisoning Anders Behring Breivik, for fear this may inspire crackdowns on political protest in Uganda.

Holding sacred democratic institutions hostage to the whims of dictators would seem to be anathema to the current executive editor of the New York Times, which is why its implied advocacy is so shocking. No one is suggesting — even in Britain, where press restrictions are more in vogue — that a nation should block access to the independent media or prevent it from expressing controversial viewpoints. In fact, Keller admits as much: “I’m not terribly alarmed that either Britain or the United States will significantly roll back the protections that allow us to hold our governments accountable — up to and including the hot scrutiny of stories like the WikiLeaks disclosures.”

What is taking place, however, is the mandatory legal process necessitated by News of the World‘s culture of disdain for the laws of the nation in which it operated. To ignore their incursions would be a far greater abandonment of democratic ideals, and would thus provide correspondingly greater fodder for the consistently bad intentions of undemocratic regimes.

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “Bill Keller: Democracy is dangerous. Maybe we should tone it down.

  1. [third bar break of the day]: i could not agree more. when you break the law, you should expect the criminal consequences. this is the way it works regardless of whether you are an individual, a newspaper or some other kind of corporate entity. playing up some illusory and vague threat to press freedom is a diversion, and frankly, irrelevant to the process of law rightfully being carried out now.

    i may or may not have gotten into an online spat today with some NYT commenter today who insisted first of all that a similar scandal wouldn’t be a big deal in the states because europeans have “no freedom of speech”, then backtracked when everyone called him out on this and insisted that britain has much tougher press laws. so what? that may be an accurate description, but how any of that should play into imposing criminal liability for criminal acts is beyond me.

    • (Did I miss the second bar break?)

      Totally agree. I don’t understand Bill Keller in general; I’ve never seen anything he’s written that was worth reading. He deals almost entirely in trite conclusions and assumptions that make it obvious he hasn’t spent any time researching.

      Which article did you get into the flame war on? 🙂

  2. I am writing a thesis with the hope that it will be applied to better the world we live in. This thesis is on Public Trust in the Media, WikiLeaks, and the Government and need to know what your opinions are. The online survey is anonymous, multiple choice and will take approximately 10 minutes to complete. Please follow the link: http://www.kwiksurveys.com/?s=​ILLLML_9669e09d. Would be great if you would encourage others to do the survey also.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s