A Wall Street Journal spokesman released a statement today that said Times executive editor Bill Keller tried to damage the Journal‘s chances of a winning a Pulitzer for a piece on China’s Three Gorges Dam with a letter he wrote to the Polk committee last year.
The letter that Mr. Keller wrote, which we published here last night, took issue with a press release about a Journal story that won a Polk award for its coverage of the Three Gorges Dam.
In a statement today, the spokesman, Robert Christie, also released a letter that then-Journal editor (and the current Washington Post editor) Marcus Brauchli sent to the committee after he read Mr. Keller’s letter.
“We are issuing this letter as a response to the extraordinary letter published today by various news organizations from the Executive Editor, Bill Keller of The New York Times that was an attempt to influence the Pulitzer Committee,” the statement reads.
Pulitzer entries are due on Feb. 1 and juries generally meet in mid-March. The Board makes its final decision a week before they’re announced, generally in April. Mr. Keller wrote his letter to the Polk Committee on March 3. The Journal is implying that by sending the letter Mr. Keller was trying to “influence” the story’s credibility, and thereby sink its chances with the Pulitzers. The George Polk Awards and the Pulitzers are run by different organizations.
“In his letter, Mr. Keller challenges the accuracy of your press release and, by implication, our reporting,” Mr. Brauchli wrote in his own letter to the Polk Committee a year and a half ago.
Here is the statement the Journal released today, followed by Mr. Brauchli’s letter from a year and half ago:
We are issuing this letter as a response to the extraordinary letter published today by various news organizations from the Executive Editor, Bill Keller of The New York Times that was an attempt to influence the Pulitzer Committee.
Then managing editor Marcus W. Brauchli of The Wall Street Journal responded to Bill Keller’s letter to the Polk Awards Committee on March 6, 2008.
A copy of this letter is below.
March 6, 2008
Dr. Robert D. Spector, Chairman
The George Polk Award
Long Island University
1 University Plaza
Brooklyn, New York, 11201-5372
Dear Dr. Spector:
Rebecca Blumenstein has sent me word of a complaint by Bill Keller about the language in a press release about the Polk awarded to Shai Oster.
Mr. Keller’s claim is a surprise to us, and we believe it is without merit. He bases his assertion on a government news-agency report that conflicts with other government news-agency reports he could as easily have cited. Our articles, which your press release describes, rest on our reporting.
In his letter, Mr. Keller challenges the accuracy of your press release and, by implication, our reporting. He asserts that the relocation of four million people has “only an indirect relationship to the dam itself.” He goes on to say that “any claim that China plans to move so many people as a result of the problems, much less as the result of any newspaper story, is false.”
We have never claimed that China announced the relocations as the result of our articles. But China is planning relocations and they are connected to the environmental situation surrounding the Three Gorges. “Some local officials say the new relocation is purely about spurring economic growth,” Shai Oster’s article of Nov. 6 says, “but the government’s own researchers recommended millions of relocations to respond to the environmental hazard.”
Mr. Keller should know this: his newspaper followed the Journal’s lead in writing about relocations connected to the troubles at the dam. “The Chinese government has announced that it will relocate an additional three million to four million people from the banks of the Yangtze River because of the construction of the Three Gorges Dam,” Howard French wrote in the Times. The New York Times hasn’t published a correction, as far as we know.
Mr. Keller also suggests that he is unable to determine “the pedigree” of the claim that China hopes to relocate more people as a result of problems surrounding the building of the dam. Our sourcing is crystal clear in the article. We relied on interviews with government officials, China’s official Xinhua News Agency-the same agency Mr. Keller cites in his letter-scholars and members of government-backed think tanks who provided the research for resettlement plans.
On Nov. 27, several weeks after our story ran, Chinese cabinet officials held a press conference in which they defended the dam, even as they acknowledged rising costs to address its environmental impact. The Wall Street Journal and the Times both filed pieces on the government response. The Journal included the official’s assertion that the additional relocations were not related to the dam. The Times chose not to include that denial in its story, or to address the issue of the resettlements at all.
In our articles last year, we acknowledged that there are several factors at play behind the relocations, which we cited in our coverage. But there is no question that the paramount reason for the pending relocation lies in the environmental problems triggered by the dam, which were known to government officials long before we first reported them.
For years, the subject of the Three Gorges Dam was so sensitive that discussion of it was virtually banned in China, despite growing evidence of problems as the water level rose. Journal reporter Shai Oster’s story on the unforeseen environmental problems at the dam on Aug. 29, along with his subsequent coverage, finally broke that silence and spurred vital reporting and questioning of the project that continues today.
We take great pride that your committee found our coverage worthy of a Polk, and we stand by our reporting.
Marcus W. Brauchli
The Wall Street Journal.