Sunday, June 25, 2006

Bill Keller Sits In A Solid Old Chair

Bill Keller sat in a cherry-wood chair with arms and a dark green cracked leather seat. The chair was by itself near an old window in an old room of the old New York Times building on West 43rd Street in Manhattan. Everything was old in The New York Times Building, and sometimes this comforted Bill Keller, and at other times he hungered to get out of there and move to the new headquarters under construction on Eighth Avenue and 40th Street. Old versus new. His newspaper was under siege because he made the editorial decision to publish an article about the Federal Government’s program of reviewing all, or at least randomly, private financial transactions with the voluntary cooperation of banking institutions. The Federal Government’s examination of private financial transactions was not necessarily illegal. Indeed, it was arguably based on clear legal precedent, not to mention statutory authority. Indeed, when Keller first learned of the program, he was surprised that Federal officials mounted a major effort to convince him not to disclose the existence of the financial monitoring. Their argument was simple. They said that it took months, if not years, to convince the major banking institutions to cooperate in permitting Federal examiners to review all private financial transactions. In essence, the Federal government wanted the ability to sit down with the banks’ computers and look at everything, all transactions, major and minor, with names, addresses, past records, security information, source of funds, anything and everything the bank was privy to, the government wanted to be privy to. The Feds argued that the banks were essentially disclosing information that their customers arguably would consider confidential, and so the banks were obviously skittish. It would be bad public relations for them to admit to their banking clients that their financial lives were an open book to the Federal government. Disclosure of the program, so the Feds argued to Bill Keller, would scare off the banks and terminate their cooperation. The argument was spearheaded by John Negroponte, the National Intelligence Director.

Bill Keller heard the argument. He felt that the argument was not bullshit, that the Feds were being upfront about the reason, which made him inclined to respect their advice. Indeed, it was an ‘Old School’ instinct to balance the various concerns, both public and private, government and journalistic. The old building he was in, with the piles of paper that The New York Times still created in this digital world gave Bill Keller a sense of moving forward with prudence. The ‘New School’ had nothing to do with prudence. The internet had made everything an open book. And no one cared about balancing anything. If it was there, and someone had access to it, it would end up on the internet. The digital age had made Bill Keller’s job more difficult. He now had to keep an eye on the internet, holding back as long he thought it proper, but only when he thought it proper. His governing rule was to try to come up with a reason not to publish, not to disclose. And quite frankly, even with ‘Old School’ thinking, the skittishness of banks was not a good reason to withhold information. If the banks were skittish, they were skittish for a reason. If the banks were compromising people’s financial transactions, then of course they would be skittish. People should know. The government should pass legislation giving the Feds the right to make the banks disclose, taking the burden off the banks and letting the public know that when they transact money, someone will be looking.

So ‘Old School’ Bill Keller decided to go with the story and publish the article. The phone was ringing off the hook. People were calling for his head. People were threatening to punish The New York Times.

Bill Keller thought about the old building he was in. He would miss it. Next year, he would be moving into one of the most high-tech facilities in the world, the most connected, the most digital, the most highly linked up information center on the planet, and he wondered if he would be able to hold onto his ‘Old School’ philosophy. Why should he, he thought. Afterall, look where it got him this morning. But then, this was also news.

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