Keller’s Letter, Revealed: What Times Ed Told Committee About Journal

Somehow, New York City’s burgeoning broadsheet war is just a little, well, textier than the one that has for years

Somehow, New York City’s burgeoning broadsheet war is just a little, well, textier than the one that has for years embroiled our two tabloids, the New York Post and the Daily News.

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This week, Wall Street Journal managing editor Robert Thomson threw a sort of punch at New York Times executive editor Bill Keller after Times media columnist David Carr on Dec. 14 published an appraisal of The Journal in the two years since it was purchased by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.


Included in the article was an assessment of The Journal‘s increasingly prominent national political coverage-including the opinion of several current and former staffers that characterized the Washington bureau as tilting rightward.


Soon after, Mr. Thomson, through a spokesman, dashed off a note full of Fleet Street flair that condemned the piece for impugning the journalism of his D.C. bureau. And then there was this!

“The attack follows the extraordinary actions of Mr Bill Keller, the Executive Editor, who, among other things, last year wrote personally and at length to a prize committee casting aspersions on Journal journalists and journalism.”

What letter could this be? We’ve found it! It was written by Mr. Keller on March 3, 2008, and addressed to the committee that hands out the George Polk Awards in Journalism each year.

The letter asks the committee to “correct a claim in [its] news release about the George Polk Awards.”

The Polk committee had honored Journal reporter Shai Oster for an article about problems with the Three Gorges Dam in China:

“In your release you state that subsequent to The Journal‘s series on Three Gorges, ‘China acknowledged that it must relocate as many as 4 million people.’

“The basis of this claim appears to be a story carried by local Chinese media and initially picked up by foreign media after a Chinese conference convened to discuss the dam last fall.

The New York Times, which also wrote an article about Three Gorges as part of an extensive 10-part series on China’s environmental problems, followed up on the claim of relocating 4 million people. We found-as did The Financial Times, The Associated Press and Chinese media-that it involved little more than repackaged resettlement plans related to the expansion of the city of Chongqing. An official in that city briefly used the publicity about the dam to enhance an ongoing campaign for more central government funds to expand the provincial-size city. That program has only an indirect relationship to the dam itself. It began well before environmental problems at the dam became clear and it will take up to 20 years to complete. The Chongquing official who initially made the claim later retracted it. Beijing has officially and repeatedly denied that environmental problems at the dam have resulted in any new plans for resettling people.

“We can send you a Xinhua news agency story that repeats the Chinese denial, and Financial Times and Economist stories that explain the origin and history of the resettlement plans.

“The problems at the dam are real, but any claim that China plans to move so many people as a result of the problems, much less as a result of any newspaper story, is false.”

So, you know, you can sort that out for yourselves. (Did he really cast “aspersions?” Then again, what were Mr. Keller’s motives? Etc.) But if you had any doubt that this is a full-scale war, consider how Mr. Keller closed his letter to the Polk committee:

“We acknowledge that we call attention to it in part because it involves an entry that competed with one of ours. We don’t know what action it might require on your part. But we feel compelled to bring it to your attention because of the esteem in which we hold the Polks.”

The gloves are off!

Keller’s Letter, Revealed: What Times Ed Told Committee About Journal