“I had pretty good story karma: the Soviet Union, followed by South Africa at exactly the right time. That’s the kind of luck that gets you on the front page no matter how good you are,” says Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times. It is just days after four Times journalists walked out of captivity in Libya, and Keller’s relief — he’s speaking from a family vacation in Jaipur that was almost canceled because of the incident — is audible in his voice. Indeed, he sounds almost giddy as he discusses foreign correspondence, present, past and future.
“I am a great believer in luck,” he says. “David Kirkpatrick is turning out to be a brilliant correspondent, and he’s doing wonderful things with his luck — but Jesus Christ, the guy lands in Cairo on his first foreign assignment, and he had been there about 15 minutes and he’d had two revolutions and one civil war — so far!
“You can’t beat good story karma,” Keller says.
After 16 years as an editor and brief stint as an editorial page columnist, Keller still says, “I think of foreign correspondents really as my tribe, more than editors.”
Like many of us, Keller, 62, a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1989 for his reporting on the Soviet Union and the Armenian earthquake, has a travelogue of horrors. Only in his case, the near-misses and tragic calls of the last several years have borne the bylines and datelines of his reporters and photojournalists: John Burns, Jeffrey Gettleman and Lynsey Addario in Iraq, Barry Bearak in Zimbabwe, Joao Silva and David Rohde in Afghanistan. They are all Times staffers or contractors taken hostage or injured while working.
“I don’t think you ever get used to it,” says Keller of the anxiety when a colleague’s luck runs out. “With the exception of Sultan Munadi who was killed in the rescue when the British commandos rescued Steve Farrell [in Afghanistan in 2009], we’ve been pretty lucky, these things have ended well. In the case of David Rohde, miraculously well — seven months and then he climbs down a rope and escapes, how often does that happen?
“When I was in Kabul last October, [Times foreign editor] Susan Chira and I went to visit Sultan’s parents…and they were still working through it and I remember sitting in their house and thinking any one of these could have ended that way.”
Kabul is a long way from the all-boys Catholic high school in San Mateo, California, where Keller first caught the journalism bug. “You could actually sneak little tidbits of unauthorized information into the school paper, and that’s when I really knew I kind of liked it,” he says. Yet, when he started at Pomona College, he was a chemistry major, “out of deference to my father,” an MIT-trained engineer who was dubious that anything but a math or science degree could lead to gainful employment.
Keller says his father finally understood the merit of journalism when the elder Keller, then an oil company executive, had to testify before Congress and his son, a Washington correspondent, explained the workings of the capital to him. “It was the first time that he was acutely aware that I knew something better than he did,” says Keller. “From there on, I think he was proud of me in a way he maybe hadn’t been before, which made me very happy because in some ways I’m a lot like him.”
George M. Keller, who as chairman and CEO of Standard Oil of California, oversaw its merger with Gulf to form Chevron in the 1980s, died in 2008.
“The thing that’s always most appealed to me about newspapers,” Keller says, “was the figuring-it-out aspect: going into a complicated story or a complicated place and studying it enough so that you thought you more or less understood it, and then explaining it fairly clearly. I always say that my favorite reaction to a story is not, `I didn’t know that,’ it’s ‘Gee, I never thought of it that way before.’ And that’s an engineer’s frame of mind. I think in that respect I take after my father. So obviously I craved his approval, at least in that one area, and was glad I got it.” n
Marcus Mabry is the first vice president of the OPC and editor at large at the International Herald Tribune, the Paris-based global edition of The New York Times. He is a former foreign correspondent for Newsweek, and author of the book, Twice as Good: Condoleezza Rice and Her Path to Power.