By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Keller himself has a history of doing exactly that the last time he got involved in the NYT’s movie coverage. Because what few people know is that Keller, while managing editor, personally recruited A.O. “Tony” Scott, now the paper’s most insightful film critic. “I can’t confirm it was Bill, although I had heard that,” Scott tells the Weekly. “The circumstances of my hiring remain mysterious to me. You don’t know how these things happen.” How cool that Keller didn’t run to Scott or anyone else to claim credit. Even now, the editor says simply, “I’m happy to take credit for Tony Scott. I just love the way his mind works, and I love the way he writes.”
Sure, Scott had done some book reviewing for the paper. But Keller was dazzled by Scott’s lengthy October 29, 1999, piece about Marty Scorsese for Slate’s “Assessments” department pegged to the release of Bringing Out the Dead, one of the worst flops of the director’s career. Reading the retrospective now, it becomes clear that Scott found a masterful way of managing to paint the director’s body of work with such a high gloss that the rusted wreck of Scorsese’s box-office appeal doesn’t really matter.
Again, to Keller’s credit, he didn’t just wave his wand and make Scott into an NYT film critic. Instead, the writer had to try out for then–culture editor John Darnton, who assigned practice reviews of Flawless and The Limey. There followed what Scott describes as “long and in-depth interviews” with Keller and then-boss Joe Lelyveld. “The way I would characterize Bill was ‘curious,’ interested in criticism as a form of journalism way outside his expertise. One thing that struck me was he was very respectful about what critics do. And, since it was way outside his expertise and since his own background is in hard journalism, that made him respect it more, not less. That was the sense I got, along with the impression that he’s someone who’s interested in writing.”
Far less successful was Keller’s involvement in Bernie Weinraub’s leaving the movie beat. As managing editor, Keller made it a point to examine the possible conflicts of interest between the NYT’s reporters in the beats they covered. This meant scrutinizing personal relationships, including then–Hollywood correspondent Weinraub’s romance with then–Columbia Pictures President Amy Pascal. Weinraub realized he’d have to find another aspect of entertainment to cover sooner rather than later. But no one expected Keller to talk publicly about the Weinraub-Pascal dilemma.
Yet, in the February 1999 issue of Brill’s Content, Keller said that, while he had no concerns about Weinraub’s integrity, “the fact that people are even saying, ‘Gee, is he completely neutral in this?’ that’s troubling . . . it’s something we’ve got to talk about.” Weinraub responded indignantly. By April, Weinraub was on the small-screen beat.
Keller is not Raines redux. But he, too, will need to be cognizant of the 18-to-34 demographic that advertisers love so dearly. Just listen to what Raines said on The Charlie Rose Show about his talks with publisher Pinch Sulzberger. Does anyone really think they hadn’t discussed those NYTstatistics showing that 80 million people in this country have “the intellectual appetite for a paper like The New York Times,” yet it only has a circulation of 1.2 million daily? That the two hadn’tbelieved in the need to “change the paper, not in its standards, not in its principles, but in the breadth of its intellectual interests and in its vitality in graphics, in the way it’s written, in the way stories are selected so that you get the other 78 million.”
One way you do that is by writing more about mass entertainment, since it’s the province of the young. Yet sanctimonious newspapers like the NYT feel it necessary to put every story idea through a gauntlet of seriousness. So it’s a foregone conclusion that, when pop culture emerges, it’s not in the valuable real estate of the news sections of the paper but rather in those low-rent ghetto areas that deal with softer features.
Raines is still wounded by criticism of his placement on Page One of an article claiming Britney Spears is “very five minutes ago” and needs a second act as an adult, and still defends it. “It speaks to the language of style and culture that the people in this country under 35 are speaking,” Raines told Rose.
Raines can be excused for romanticizing the actual piece into something more spectacular than it was. In truth, it delivered little new reporting and even less societal insight. Just the fact of being was enough. Raines recounted for Rose how Martin Nisenholtz, CEO of The New York Times Digital, semitortured his two teenage daughters at breakfast by assigning them an NYT story for the family to discuss at dinner. “And that Sunday he started in his pitch, and they said, ‘No, you don’t need to make an assignment. We already read the Britney Spears story, and we want to discuss that.’”