Bill Keller Hits Airwaves to Talk Kidnapping, Iran and the Daily Show

“I mean, I spent way more than I care to of my time thinking about the future and working on the future of the Times business model,”  said Bill Keller, executive editor of The Times, speaking on CNN’s Reliable Sources about his decision to go to Iran for the presidential election. “But running a newspaper and a Web site is what I do.”

And so this week, Mr. Keller concerned himself with issues that Times editors of yore had to worry about: a kidnapping, and defending front-page stories (in this case, why he was writing them). He appeared yesterday on Reliable Sources and ABC’s This Week to discuss both issues. And it was only 12 days ago that he’d appeared on The Daily Show, in their segment “End Times.” It was an incredible spell of wide-ranging publicity for the Times‘ editor.

First, the kidnapping of Times reporter David Rohde. It was a secret kept so quiet that even as recently as April, after The Times scored a Pulitzer for its reporting in Afghanistan, Mr. Keller made no mention of Mr. Rohde’s abduction.

“David Rohde brought years of experience in Afghanistan and Pakistan to write with deep authority about the region,” he said in a speech to the newsroom in April. “The Pakistani and Afghan staff took enormous risks and share in this prize—our Pakistani reporter was even held hostage in the course of reporting one of the stories.”

A Pakistani reporter was held hostage—yet there was no mention of Mr. Rohde.

“I had my doubts at points along the way, particularly when Pulitzer day came and everybody knew David was part of our team in Afghanistan and Pakistan last year that won the Pulitzer this year,” said Mr. Keller on Reliable Sources yesterday. “I thought it might leak out then. But in fact, people were amazingly understanding.”

Mr. Keller said in a memo to staff on Saturday that details of Mr. Rohde’s abduction needed to be kept secret in order to prevent a blueprint for what future kidnappers should do.

“I expect we will be besieged by understandable questions about who did what to make this happen,” he wrote. “I hope that if any of you are probed on the subject you’ll keep in mind that anything we say about our efforts to get David out—whether authoritative or speculative—risks becoming part of the playbook for future kidnappers.

“I mean, until I debrief David, I can’t tell you an awful lot,” he said on This Week. “I can’t even tell you what the circumstances were that created this opportunity at the end. But at the end, he was in a compound in northern Waziristan. He and his translator companion hopped over a wall, climbed over a wall, made their way to a Pakistani army base, and he’s now free and safe.”

He explained that no ransom was paid, and when Sam Donaldson asked him whether to keep quiet or to go public was something Times editors debated, Mr. Keller replied, “We debated it among ourselves over and over and over again.”

Mr. Keller also addressed his trip to Iran.

“Once the place exploded, we have two people there, our Iranian correspondent who lives there and Bobby Worth from our Beirut bureau, who were working their tails off writing the lead of the paper every day, exhausted,” he said on Reliable Sources. “And at that point, it was either sit in a hotel room and order room service or join the work force.”

And on the Times‘ controversial decision to grant an interview request to The Daily Show, well, even Mr. Keller admitted that he looked “faintly ridiculous.”

My wife, who was trying to buck up my spirits, told me I looked only faintly ridiculous,” he said. “All I can say is I was really glad to be in Tehran where they don’t get Comedy Central.”

Bill Keller Hits Airwaves to Talk Kidnapping, Iran and the Daily Show