Keller, in addition to running the paper, came up at the Times as a star foreign correspondent, having won a Pulitzer for his coverage of the Soviet Union's collapse. He's no stranger to descending into the mean streets of a strange place in a safari vest and ferreting out the story. Keller's decision to go to Tehran might be an indication of his rumored boredom at the top of the Times, overseeing the once-great paper's demise and humiliating himself on the Daily Show. He told us that rumors going around the newsroom that he would be stepping down were "bullshit," but a jaunt back into the exhilarating streets of a foreign capital could be a sign of restlessness.
The front page of the Times' web site right now shows why:
We've got a photo of a massive demonstration in Tehran in defiance of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and a headline reporting that Iran's Supreme Leader is wavering in his support for the president next to a "news analysis"—which should presumably reflect and bear some relation to the news—telling us how Ahmadinejad has emerged from all this "with a stronger hand." Really?
That piece, datelined Tehran, is by Keller and Michael Slackman. Keller's view is premised almost entirely upon the fact the Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayotollah Khameini, has thrown his support behind Ahmadinejad, calling the election results "a divine blessing." He argued that—irrespective of the legitimacy or lack thereof of his re-election—Ahmadinejad has consolidated power and outmaneuvered his reformist opponents.
Whether his 63 percent victory is truly the will of the people or the result of fraud, it demonstrated that Mr. Ahmadinejad is the shrewd and ruthless front man for a clerical, military and political elite that is more unified and emboldened than at any time since the 1979 revolution.
As president, Mr. Ahmadinejad is subordinate to the country's true authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who commands final say over all matters of state and faith. With this election, Mr. Khamenei and his protégé appear to have neutralized for now the reform forces that they saw as a threat to their power, political analysts said.
That analysis is, as they say, no longer operative. Not long after it went up on the Times web site last night, Khameini dramatically reversed himself and called for the country's powerful Guardian Council to investigate the election results. That's not a definitive shift, and it may well be an empty gesture designed to humor the aggrieved reformists. But given Ahmadinejad's forceful claim of victory in a clean election, and his comparison of the protesters in the street to poor losers after a soccer game, Khameini's decision to publicly lend credence to claims that the victory was fixed is hardly an indication that the men share a "unified and emboldened" alliance.
It's obviously difficult to pick out the right thread from a moving and complicated story, and Khameini's apparent reversal certainly was a surprise. So we shouldn't fault Keller for getting it wrong so much as fault him for insisting on being the one to get it wrong. Let your reporters stick their necks out on shoddy analysis peices. That's one of the perks of being top dog—kings get to guide the battle from a horse on a safe hill somewhere. They're not supposed to get muddy on the front lines. When you get your hands dirty like this, it kind of makes us wonder if you really know what you're talking about.
And given the cognitive dissonance generated by the conflicting headlines on the Times' front page right now, you'd think they'd replace the news analysis with something fresher. Wonder why they haven't?
On Sunday, Keller filed a "Memo From Tehran" summing up reaction to the vote. And he quoted people anonymously, a practice that the Times regularly engages in because it is almost always necessary to report true things, but also sanctimoniously distances itself from because some people think it's bad:
"They didn't rig the vote," claimed the man, who showed his ministry identification card but pleaded not to be named. "They didn't even look at the vote. They just wrote the name and put the number in front of it."
That passage was refreshing in that it didn't include the pedantic and forced recitation of the anonymous source's reasons for demanding anonymity—"said, the source, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak on the matter"—that is actually required of the Times' sourcing guidelines:
We should avoid automatic references to sources who "insisted on anonymity" or "demanded anonymity"; rote phrases offer the reader no help and make our decisions appear automatic. When possible, though, articles should tersely explain what kind of understanding was actually reached by reporter and source, and should shed light on the reasons and the source's motives.
"Pleaded not to be named" isn't quite as "rote" as "insisted on anonymity," but it doesn't really tell us too much about the understanding that was actually reached, Bill, between you and your source as you assiduously worked to live up to the sourcing guidelines that you impose on your reporters.
UPDATE: Times spokeswoman Diane McNulty gave freelancer Erik Maza a statement on Keller's trip. Turns out he just wanted to get the hell out of the office:
He went because he had long wanted to visit Iran and the occasion of the election seemed like a great time to do so, accompanying our reporter, Robert Worth. Bill had not planned to write articles but when the story got so big, he did so.