New York Times Editor Sneers at Media Reporters as 'Oxpeckers' to His Rhinoceros

New York Times executive editor Bill Keller has a funny way of expressing humility. Slate’s Tom Scocca found he expressed surprise that media reporters are obsessed with his newspaper, so much so that one writer live-blogged his recent appearance on NPR’s On Point with Tom Ashbrook. But his metaphor – the media reporters are “oxpeckers” while he is a massive African rhinoceros -- sounded more than a little haughty:

One of the things that continually surprises me about this job is the fascination of those outside The Times with every micro-facet of our work. Recently I did an hourlong radio call-in show, and The NY Observer actually live-blogged it. Seriously, my own wife isn't as interested in what I do all day as John Koblin, Michael Calderone, Jacob Bernstein and the rest of our obsessive chroniclers. These guys always remind me of oxpeckers, those little birds that ride on the backs of large African mammals and eat their ticks.

Their attention has made me a little more guarded than I like at these sessions. But I will try to be as forthcoming as possible in answer to your questions, with the understanding that this is a family event, not for wider broadcast. Please, no live blogging.

'To underline the authenticity of his quotes, Scocca cited a source inside the paper: “I'm always entertained by his belief (or his stated belief) that the reason news leaks out of the Times is because the paper is stalked by perverse obsessives. Confidential to Bill Keller: the call is coming from inside the house. (Text of Keller's remarks was posted on the Times' intranet).”

Scocca also found Keller boasting that the Times was running laps around his major-newspaper competitors, or as he snootily called them, our “one-time peers.” Keller proclaimed the Times will thrive, while others take a dive: Last week we took home three awards from the Online Journalism Association. Our oil spill tracker was honored as an outstanding use of digital technology. Our Toxic Waters project won the award for innovative investigative journalism. And David Rohde's account of his months in Taliban captivity got the top multimedia award. It's interesting to consider the list of the other prizewinners: ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Voice of San Diego, NPR Mobile Applications, and so on. Do you notice what's missing? Not one of the big newspapers who were once our only rivals - not one - was represented in the list of winners. No Washington Post, no Wall Street Journal, no Los Angeles Times, no Chicago Tribune. There is a new competitive landscape of journalism, and we are not just living in it, we are thriving in it.

Many of our one-time peers continue to founder financially or slide toward mediocrity - or toward frat-house comedy, if you recall Dave Carr's astounding account of life in the Tribune Company. At The Times, meanwhile, we've been doing a little building.

As the Washington Post completed its shutdown of all national bureaus, Rick Berke opened new ones in Phoenix and Kansas City. As readers around the country find it harder to get serious local news, we've added a third local edition following the San Francisco Bay Area and Chicago - this time in Texas, in partnership with the Texas Tribune. As other weekly magazines wither or die, both the weekly Times magazine and T have new editors, who are gathering forces for relaunches of their magazines early in the new year. While the Wall Street Journal has been focusing on making itself a lite version of the NYT, we've hired an impressive staff to go after their core business with our Dealbook franchise and other sophisticated business journalism.

Or, as Scocca summarized it, "the executive editor sees the Times striding tall across the grassy savanna of 21st-century media, imposing yet nimble, even as other megafauna dwindle toward extinction."

By the way, New York Observer live-blogger Zeke Turner relayed that on his September 22 public-radio show, Keller sneered: "Glenn Beck ... described himself as a radio clown once upon a time, which I thought was an interesting burst of candor." The Web staff of Ashbrook's show highlighted his verdict on Rupert Murdoch: an incomplete on The Wall Street Journal, but "His main impact on American public life I would say is Fox News, and that impact has been to introduce a level of cynicism into the public debate, I believe." But the New York Times apparently only brings idealism and straight news to the table.

Tom Ashbrook
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