“Hello, Bill Keller here. My cell phone is acting up. Hello?”
Okay, so it’s rather curious that the just-named executive editor of The New York Times is taking time out from the hoopla over his appointment, and the rescue of that institution, to discuss Hollywood coverage under his soon-to-be leadership. But that, in and of itself, is telling. “It’s a subject I care about,” says the California native, who personally talent-spotted A.O. Scott and transformed him from book reviewer to film critic, who goes to the movies two or three times a month, who has TiVo, and who loves HBO’s original series about drug trafficking, The Wire.
And The Industry now cares about him. The moguls certainly do, since Big Media stocks aren’t the darlings of Wall Street they used to be, and a lousy NYT business profile or entertainment story is more humiliating than one in any other news outlet. New York–bred Hollywood denizens consider the NYT to be their real hometown paper of record. As a result, few things are as worshipped here as the NYT’s arts-and-entertainment section.
And lastly (because in this town the search for intellectual enlightenment always takes a back seat to potential profit), Keller’s naming merits scrutiny for its significance to culture, and specifically to pop culture, which is Hollywood’s vocation and obsession.
Keller now will have the final say over who fills the just-vacated job of NYT Hollywood correspondent. (The movers last week picked up Rick Lyman’s L.A. household belongings.) It means a yawning gap for the NYT’s film coverage that unfortunately coincides with the moved-up date of the Academy Awards from March to February 2004. Hmm, will the NYT lag behind in Oscar-contender coverage?
To summarize Keller’s conversation with the Weekly, he wasn’t aware of any whittled-down list of candidates, he won’t focus on filling the position for several months, he hopes to fill it “by the end of the year, maybe sooner,” and he doesn’t wish to continue business as usual on that beat. “We ought to think strategically about our Hollywood coverage,” Keller muses. “Because the nature of the job has changed. The players in the field have changed. And the relative balance of meaty business story and culture story has shifted somewhat. I don’t quite know where the balance is now.”
But he will by the time he focuses on it, he pledges.
“I’m inheriting about 5,000 portfolios, and this is one of them. And first, I have to find a managing editor,” he laughs. “Hollywood is a really important assignment, and it’s certainly something I want to look at as soon and as closely as possible.”
Understandably, Hollywood wasn’t on Keller’s mind right after he lost the NYT’s gladiatorial contest for the editorship to Howell Raines. Case in point: Around that time back in 2001, veteran entertainment reporter Kim Masters recalls being introduced to Keller in a Manhattan restaurant where she was discussing a possible contract-writing gig with two NYT sub-editors. “So one of the editors said, ‘Oh, Bill, this is Kim Masters. We want to bring her aboard.’ And Keller said, ‘Not my problem,’ and walked away.”
Keller these days sounds like a much happier man. After all, he is no longer the also-ran. As managing editor, Keller was a judicious though joyless schoolmaster because of his intensity. But on the phone now, he is warm and charming, the class clown. Such epiphanic behavior is to be expected of anyone who, after losing the job of his dreams, gets another crack at it because of what passes for an act of God in journalism circles (the Jayson Blair scandal). So categorize Keller’s mood as: I can be gracious in victory because I have vanquished my enemy. Now that’s a situation that Hollywood folk, renowned for their viciousness, can easily comprehend.
The Raines administration will wrongly go down in that paper’s history as ignominious. Among many supposed heresies, Raines had pop-culture stories on Britney Spears and Botox share the front page with the Iraqi war and the Enron scandal. But Keller will be under the same pressures from NYT publisher Pinch Sulzberger to attract a more youthful readership, and may need to find the same solutions as Raines.
As for how Keller really feels about Hollywood, we have his own writings.
Keller takes over with a Raines-named troika newly in charge of the NYT’s cultural coverage. In October 2002, former foreign correspondent Steven Erlanger was anointed culture editor; in January of this year, cultural kahuna Frank Rich was given even more power; and, just two weeks later, 28-year-old Jody Kantor, the New York editor for the online magazine Slate, was named editor of Arts & Leisure.
Even under the best of circumstances, coming in with a management crew freshly assembled by one’s predecessor would be aggravating. Keller’s hands are tied because he has made it clear there’ll be no bloodletting. The mind boggles at what might have happened if, say, Bonnie Fuller had succeeded in steamrollering her way into an editing job there (instead of effecting that 180-degree turnaround at Us magazine by being both a Zeitgeist visionary and a bitch on wheels). But Rich is a known quantity, and Erlanger seems solid. Which leaves as the only wild card Kantor, the Harvard Law School dropout who’d only been in journalism for four years. This month, the inevitable sniping about her began in the New York press.