“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.
Keller says he has “complete confidence” in the current cultural team and recites the usual platitudes about “talented staff” and “something that doesn’t need fixing.” A close Keller ally confirms that the new editor really means it. “First of all, take Bill at his word that there’s not going to be bloodletting.” As for the controversial Kantor, the insider explains, “He thinks also her work has been very strong, and is aware that outside the paper and within it, there’s a sense that she’d really done some terrific stuff and made it a lot better in a short time. In the end, that’s what matters, rather than the thought she’s connected to the old management.”
As soon as Keller emerged as the editor-of-choice, the NYT grapevine claimed Keller had asked Lyman to stay put. Fueling the speculation was the fact that the two men were friends from their concurrent time covering South Africa (Lyman for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Keller winning a Pulitzer for the NYT.)
For Keller to keep Lyman in the job would have sent not merely mixed signals to Hollywood, but certainly the worst signal about the coverage to come. As the Weekly previously reported, Raines had wanted Lyman to stop writing those articles headlined “Watching Movies With . . .” on the grounds they were too long and boring. And Raines threw a fit when he saw his paper trailing everyone on the Ovitz–Vanity Fair “gay mafia” story. Meanwhile, NYT insiders and outsiders felt that Lyman allowed himself to be used as a mouthpiece by many movie studios, most regrettably by Miramax.
Without revealing how he feels about Lyman’s time on the movie beat, Keller says the murmuring “isn’t true. Yes, I know Rick from South Africa. And, yes, I’ve talked to Rick a few times in recent weeks. We talked about our kids, and which of the various venues around New York he might want to go house hunting in, and about the new job he’s lined up for. But I did not talk to him about staying on.”
It turns out that, if asked, Lyman would have said no. Lyman did not return calls, but NYT’s Los Angeles bureau chief, John Broder, says, “I asked Rick, in hypothetical terms, after he made the commitment to go back to New York, if he would consider staying. He said, ‘No, the die is cast,’ because not only had Lyman’s home here sold in an afternoon, but he’d already bought a new house in Pelham.” Two weekends ago, Lyman was feted at a going-away party thrown by Broder at Santa Monica’s La Serenata de Garibaldi attended by 25 non-show-biz intimates. Broder made the toast. “I stood up and said we’d miss him and saw him as the canary in the mineshaft. You know, about whether it’s safe to go back to New York.”
Keller quite candidly admits that he doesn’t have the faintest idea where things stand with choosing Lyman’s replacement. When he hears that the Weekly wrote recently about the selection process, he instantly reverts to reporter. “What did you write?” “What do you think of the candidates?” “How should we change the coverage?” He’s told that, back in April, the shortlist included Los Angeles Times editor-writer Michael Cieply, Los Angeles magazine writer Amy Wallace, Washington Post Style correspondent Sharon Waxman and Wall Street Journal staff reporter Bruce Orwall.
“Hmm. I know something about some of those candidates from having read them in the past,” Keller says. “I don’t believe the executive editor of the Times should handpick everyone who fills every job. But I certainly would expect to review the selection process. It’s certainly something I want to look at.”
Erlanger prepared a dossier about possible candidates for Raines, but there wasn’t time for Raines to read it before the Blair scandal broke. Even so, according to insiders, the field had narrowed to Waxman and Wallace, with Waxman being given the best odds. Neither Wallace nor Waxman would comment. Erlanger declined comment by e-mail, and Rich didn’t respond. But sources say last week Erlanger stressed that the process was starting all over again and that meant collecting more names, résumés and clips to include in a new dossier for Keller. “I’m sure they’re going about the search in just the right way,” Keller comments. “You start by assembling a list. And those are the right people, Steve and Frank, you’d ask to do it.”
It will not be surprising if Keller urges Erlanger and Rich to look beyond the usual suspects and, more to the point, the usual venues.
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 NYT statistics 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’t believed 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.’”
What Raines didn’t mention, and should have, was “The Music They Made,” Weinraub’s look back at the legends of rock, country and soul who became inspirations to modern-day music icons. Not only was this Raines’ idea. Not only was each 5,000-word segment showcased on Page One. But it was genius for helping handle the diversity dilemma facing newspapers, under constant fire for portraying nonwhites in the context of their failures and not their successes. Talk about refreshing: The first three articles profiled three black men: Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and B.B. King.
Indeed, one of the first tests of Keller’s leadership will be to see how he handles the play on Weinraub’s music series, which is going to restart soon.
Keller is too new in the job to articulate any opinions about mass entertainment. He even freezes when asked what his favorite films are. “The mind blanks. I know that, five hours from now, I’ll begin to come up with a list. But I can’t do that by your deadline.” He finds time to go to the movies two to three times a month, which is more than average for his age range. As for vegging out in front of the tube, “I’ve had TiVo for the past two years, as a result of which I watch more television than anything. I’m very HBO-oriented. I loved The Wire.” (Okay, you HBO guys can stop high-fiving now.)
But Keller has a long way to go before he can ever match Raines’ comfort zone. Take music. Raines knows Eminem and Marshall Mathers are one and the same person (most newspaper editors would confuse Mathers with that other Marshall, as in McLuhan). And Raines can rattle off not just the names of rap stars, but even which rap stars have been killed and why. (On the flip side, Raines made reference in a New York Observer interview to CBGB, which today is best known for making edgy fashionwear. But Raines was referring to the seminal New York City club from 25 years ago that spawned bands like Television, Blondie, the Dead Boys and the Ramones.)
Keller not only doesn’t color his speech with pop-culture references, he doesn’t make them in his writing, either — unless you count an NYT Sunday Magazine piece that surveyed possible nuclear-terror targets and suggested Disneyland.
In November, he singled out the movie Traffic and praised as “splendid” two HBO series, The Corner and The Wire, in a column about the drug war. But he eschewed an obvious opportunity to be hip (or make puns out of U2 lyrics) in a column about then–Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and Bono touring Africa together.
Instead, Keller in print embraces Rabelais and Shakespeare. (Heck, the last time someone other than Kenneth Branagh wanted to film Shakespeare, it was Mel Gibson asking Warner Bros. to underwrite Hamlet. In the pitch meeting, executive Mark Canton looked at his people and asked, totally serious, “Do we have coverage on that?”)
The Pomona College graduate, opining about California’s troubles, did use the post-9/11 period to moralize about the movie biz. “In Hollywood, the angst manifests itself in talk of a great creative disorientation following Sept. 11. Have our movies made the world hate us? Dare we go on producing mindless daisy-cutter flicks? My friend Sheryle Longin, screenwriter for Dick and other films, argues that, in fact, formula-driven, risk-averse corporate culture long ago dried up Hollywood’s creative juices. And Sept. 11 is just a convenient excuse for permanent ennui. Whatever.”
But Keller also has a very obvious devotion to his home state. After noting a “flag-wrapped self-interest” idea to paint stars and stripes on the Hollywood Sign, Keller concludes, “You can say it’s just California, where self-indulgence is embedded in the culture. But I’m inclined to agree with the great apostle of the West, Wallace Stegner, who said California was just like the rest of the country, only more so.”
Keller has been praised for being behind the paper’s move into the Internet and television, so that means he can talk the talk, and walk the walk, with Big Media’s moguls. They also may take heart from another of Keller’s columns. “I’m prepared to believe that a competent mogul might actually know some things that could be usefully applied to overseeing a piece of government,” Keller argues. “If Jack Welch [former head of General Electric, NBC’s parent company] had spent the last year applying his tough-love management to the CIA rather than compiling all his thank-you notes into a book, maybe we’d have seen Osama bin Laden coming.”
One problem: In 2001, Keller was packed off to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school. So he may know phony studio accounting when he sees it.
Keller can recognize a plot worthy of Jerry Bruckheimer. In a March column, he wrote about (“I am not making this up”) a Defense Department briefing for senior intelligence officials by a writer who claims messages encoded in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament provide clues to the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden.
While a column titled “Watching Movies With Senator Kerry” sounded promising, it turned out to be Keller watching silent washed-out color footage Kerry took during the Vietnam War. Another column, headed “Bubba and Ol’ Boris,” could have been the name of next fall’s CBS sitcom following Everybody Loves Raymond. But it was only a review of Kremlinologist Strobe Talbott’s diplomatic memoir.
And last but not least, Keller hates star treatment. He told the Washington Post this week, “I don’t like to spend a lot of my time out playing celebrity.” (Translation: He’s sitting out Vanity Fair’s next Oscar party.) But Hollywood has a way of seducing even aesthetes like Keller. Prediction: He’ll be dining with Steven Spielberg before too long.
Contact Nikki Finke at email@example.com.