Keller Says Its a Great Time to Be a Foreign Correspondent

New York Times executive editor Bill Keller was this year’s recipient of the OPC President’s Award. Here is his acceptance speech that he gave on April 28 at the 72nd OPC Awards Dinner.



I’ve been told I have ten minutes. I expect to yield back a few. It’s late. You’re tired. You’re drunk. (Or if you’re not, shame on you.)

At least you can all sleep in tomorrow now that the royal wedding has been called off.

You all got the news alert, right? Apparently the News of the World broke the story by hacking into the Archbishop of Canterbury’s cell phone.

I’d like to thank the board for this honor. My wife’s immediate reaction was that this is the kiss of death. I think her exact words were: “you’re a dead man walking.” There IS something about a lifetime achievement award that falls between valedictory and obituary. I mean, I like to think I still have a good bit of lifetime left.

Then earlier this month the New York Women in Communications gave their lifetime achievement award to Betty White. My wife asked if that made me the Betty White of American journalism. I assured her that Helen Thomas had that role locked up.

But I’m honored and very grateful. I’ve done a fair number of jobs in this business, high and low, foreign and domestic, street and desk — but if I have to say where I feel most at home, it’s with the tribe of foreign correspondents. 

Being a foreign correspondent is the best work in journalism — and, yes, that includes my current job. It teaches you all sorts of life-enhancing skills: how to talk your way onto an overbooked airplane, how to take the words of translators who learned their English watching Sponge Bob cartoons and turn them into literate quotes, how to survive for days on coffee and cigarettes — or I guess these days it’s Red Bull and Nicorette — how to make it through a Chinese Communist Party plenum — or an Overseas Press Club awards dinner — without a bathroom break.

I’m delighted to spend an evening in the company of so many members of that tribe, and I congratulate all the winners. Your work in far-flung places reinforces my conviction that— while aggregation is a wonderful thing, and I really, sincerely mean that — there is no substitute for boots on the ground.

That, by the way, is as close as I intend to get tonight to the subject of Arianna Huffington. I’m sorry to disappoint those of you who are live-blogging— and especially sorry to disappoint Arianna, who has overcome her publicity-shyness to challenge me, so far, to five debates, a dance contest, a World Wrestling Federation smack-down, and a duel.

I also plan to avoid the subject of Rupert Murdoch and Fox News. I think even the birthers are entitled to a network they can call their own.

And although we are thankful that The Times was cited by the OPC for our coverage of the War Logs and diplomatic cables, and I’m very proud of that work, I’m a little tapped out on the subject of Julian Assange. Julian is angry with me and my paper, but I think he has had ample revenge: it is apparently my fate to spend eternity appearing on panels discussing WikiLeaks.

I also do not intend to talk tonight about the business model for digital journalism. I’m a friend and great admirer of Alan Rusbridger, but I’m not in the mood right now to quarrel with his view that — as I understand it — we should all work for free. I will, however, be happy to hold his coat while he dukes it out with Lionel Barber of the FT, who has the effrontery to argue that newspapers should make money.

And finally, in my list of non-topics, I do not intend to whine about the American retreat from foreign news coverage. We’re all used to the conventional wisdom that these are dire times for foreign news. I’ve been hearing that at least since I was made Foreign Editor in 1995, and it’s true that the downsizing has been brutal. But this is not the occasion and, frankly, I’m not the guy, since our foreign staff at The Times is as large as it has ever been.

No, my thought for the evening is a brighter one: that this is a glorious time for foreign reporting.

What we have — in North Africa, the Middle East, Japan, Ivory Coast, to cite just the obvious highlights — is amazing, rich, consequential stories. The other day I was chatting with Tom Friedman, who has been in this business upwards of 30 years and won three Pulitzers and four OPC awards — including this one, the President’s Award, in 2004 — and he declared that Tahrir Square was simply the most amazing story of his life.

I covered the end of the Soviet Union and the end of white rule in South Africa, and I believe that what we are witnessing now is in the same league. The Arab Spring — or if you count the buds of freedom in Iran, the Arab/Persian Spring — is the kind of story that makes journalists say things like “I can’t believe they pay me to do this.”  Not because of the euphoria in the streets, or because we are confident that something better is in store for these countries. It is thrilling because these are big, complicated, unpredictable events, demanding attention, investigation and explanation — in other words, demanding journalism.

Covering these stories may not be as fun as in the days before Sat phones and Web updates, when you could actually go off-grid, stay there for a while, and absorb at least a crude understanding of a situation before you were obliged to file on it.

And, as we have already acknowledged tonight, the job is often perilous. I spent a few hours Monday at Walter Reed hospital with Joao Silva, who lost his legs to a land mine last October while embedded with an American patrol near Kandahar, and who is now learning to walk on artificial limbs and fighting off waves of infection. We spent much of the time — TOO much of the time — talking about colleagues and friends who have been detained or assaulted — or killed — in Egypt, Libya and Syria, including, of course, Tim Hetherington, who is tragically not with us tonight, and Lynsey Addario, who is here tonight wearing her National Geographic hat.

And we should not let this evening pass without paying tribute to those who risk their lives in crucial supporting roles — stringers, fixers, translators, drivers. Because they lack the protection of money or a visa to somewhere else, they are the most vulnerable of all. The Times has had three of our local colleagues killed on my watch— two in Iraq, one in Afghanistan— and we still have a driver missing in Libya.

But there are also enormous, happy consequences to stories of this magnitude.

What happens when a Mubarek falls or a Japanese nuclear reactor goes wild, is that readers flock to the news organizations that cover the news. Web traffic spikes; newsstand sales improve; viewers switch from Real Housewives to Real Life.

Institutions that have stinted on foreign bureaus scramble to find reporters who remember how to get a visa and even — wonder of wonders — speak a foreign language. Enterprising freelancers and startups like Global Post find they are in demand, and some careers get launched. New Media gurus who imagined that social media could be a substitute for professional journalism are shown that — while Twitter and YouTube can give you glances of history, there’s a limited value to crowd-sourcing a revolution.

And maybe, just maybe, foreign reporting moves up the priority lists for the people who make resource decisions, and maybe it stays there.

At least, that’s my hope.

I’ve always believed that the salvation of quality journalism — the kind of work being honored tonight — lies in the law of supply and demand. The demand for what we do — the hunger for it, the need for it, measured in those millions of page views — has never been greater.

In my next lifetime, I look forward to seeing the supply replenished to meet that demand.

Thank you very much.