Bill Keller: Since WikiLeaks People Email Calling Me A "Treasonous Son of a Bitch"

Bill Keller and Alan RusbridgerBill Keller and Alan Rusbridger Listen to Jack Goldsmith (not pictured)

Photo: Joseph Alexiou

At last night’s WikiLeaks panel hosted by Columbia Journalism School, New York Times executive editor Bill Keller said that since the release of his new WikiLeaks e-book, he’s gotten a resurgence of emails, with messages ranging from “you’re an unpatriotic, treasonous son-of-a-bitch” to “Julien Assange is the messiah” and “why didn’t you treat him as such.”Held in Columbia’s cavernous Low Memorial Library, the panel also included The Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger and former Assistant Attorney General Jack Goldsmith.

The room under the grand, echoey dome was packed with at least 300 mostly attentive people and one man, approximately in his 70s, who snoozed through most of the discussion with an iPad displaying a Scrabble game resting in his lap.

The discussion, led by former Guardian online editor Emily Bell, who is now the director of the journalism school’s Tow centre for Digital journalism, included the newspapers’ relationships with the U.S. State Department, and the nature of Assange, whom Rusbridger described as “a new breed of intermediary, entrepreneur, and journalist.”

But perhaps most interestingly, was Keller’s point that despite slowdown in WikiLeaks-based stories, big media is far from discarding the cables as a source for stories.

“Only a small fraction have been read and published,” he said. Without a continued reading of WikiLeaks, the Times “would have never known about Suleiman,” Keller explained, referring to Omar Suleiman, former Egyptian intelligence chief who was recently appointed vice president of that country. Keller pointed out that while the leaked cables may not have caused the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, their publishing fuelled a fire that was already burning.

Rusbridger gave the example that the Guardian’s only found four stories involving India that they thought relevant to publish, but an Indian journalist found at least 26 — stories that could eventually become of international interest.

As the question portion was closing, one woman yelled out “What about Manning?” referring to Bradley Manning, the 23-year-old incarcerated soldier who supposedly delivered the cables to Assange.

“His voice is the one we haven’t heard,” responded Rusbridger, sounding especially serious. “It’s really important  to hear his voice.” Keller was oddly silent.

At the reception afterward (hosted by the New York Times), I caught up with both of the editors — dodging around Journalism school students and kooky tech writers —to quiz them both on their opinions regarding Al-Jazeera’s recent spotlight in covering the Egypt protests.

“They’re impressive,” Rusbridger said. “They hold their own in Britain, not just in the Middle East. They bring a different perspective; they’re thorough.” 

As far as people paying more attention to them on the media landscape: “It can only be a good thing.”

In between sips of red wine and clearing his throat numerous times (it is that season) Keller’s views on Al-Jazeera were mostly favourable. But he did seem less impressed with how Al Jazeera covered Egypt than Rusbridger. Or perhaps he was more sceptical.

“A lot of people were there,” he told me, referring to North Africa, “because of Tunisia.”

He called Al-Jazeera’s Egypt coverage a “high profile moment.” He also pointed out the fact that Al-Jazeera is owned and was founded by the Qatari government, and were slow to cover the protests at first, perhaps because of Qatar’s close relationship with Egypt. However he still considers them to be a “viable source” for news.

“They’re serious professionals,” he said.

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