The Gasoline Bill Keller Threw on the WSJ vs. NYT Fire

There is history behind the current WSJ/NYT spat: The New York Observer today has found a 2008 letter Times Executive Editor Bill Keller wrote in an effort, basically, to make a Journal reporter lose an important award.

This would be the letter that WSJ editor Robert Thomson recently accused Bill Keller of writing "to a prize committee casting aspersions on Journal journalists and journalism."

Here's the story: Journal reporter Shai Oster won a George Polk Award for a report on problems with the construction of China's Three Gorges Dam (For those who don't know, the George Polk Award is a fancy award given for political reporting. Joan Didion has one—look it up). In a press release announcing the award, the committee implied that Oster's article basically forced the Chinese government to admit that the Dam would displace 4 million people.

Bill Keller was all: Nu, uh it didn't! His letter essentially says: "The Journal article was not actually as important as you think it is. Wah Wah. Give us the award instead." This excerpt, from John Koblin's Observer piece:

In your release you state that subsequent to The Journal's series on Three Gorges, 'China acknowledged that it must relocate as many as 4 million people.'

The basis of this claim appears to be a story carried by local Chinese media and initially picked up by foreign media after a Chinese conference convened to discuss the dam last fall.

The New York Times, which also wrote an article about Three Gorges as part of an extensive 10-part series on China's environmental problems, followed up on the claim of relocating 4 million people. We found-as did The Financial Times, The Associated Press and Chinese media-that it involved little more than repackaged resettlement plans related to the expansion of the city of Chongqing... The problems at the dam are real, but any claim that China plans to move so many people as a result of the problems, much less as a result of any newspaper story, is false.

(i.e. It wasn't the dam, you dolts, it was this huge-ass city. Was the Journal's article about the city? Didn't think so. But we wrote a pretty good article about that city! So...)

The current controversy is mainly over the unflattering words Times reporter David Carr used to describe the Journal; but this letter could be interpreted by some blogging warmongers as amounting to attempted career sabotage.

Honestly, outside of hosting big photos on their website, the best thing newspapers can do to save themselves right now is to adopt a no holds barred, mixed-martial arts approach to their competitors. This would make the industry way more amenable to being incorporated into a fantasy football-type game, which is the only thing that seems to makes people pay attention to anything these days. (We've got our money on the Journal if it comes to blows. There's just something about loving money that makes you strong.)