Journalist Bill Keller to speak in Sonoma on Feb. 26
The week after Donald Trump was elected president, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bill Keller was invited to give a talk to the staff at WNYC radio in New York.
As he understood it, his role was to be a “Dr. Phil” of sorts for the demoralized young journalists who worked at the station. But, while he was surprised himself at the election results, Keller had an upbeat take on the election and gave the reporters a bit of tough love.
He told them, “The biggest story of your lifetime has just come along, and you’re worried about the fact that you won’t be invited to press conferences at the White House.”
Now, a year into President Trump’s term, Keller stands by this take.
“In a lot of ways, (Trump) has been good for journalism,” Keller told the Index-Tribune. “Most obviously, a lot of places have received a big bump in subscriptions; nonprofits have gotten a small bump in donations.”
Adds Keller: “He’s an amazing story, albeit not an easy one.”
Keller is currently editor-in-chief of the Marshall Project, a nonprofit online journalism group focusing on issues of social justice. On Monday, Feb. 26, Sonomans will have the chance to hear from Keller in person when he will join former NPR reporter John McChesney for a moderated discussion on criminal justice and “reporting in the age of Trump.”
The event, part of the Sonoma Speaker Series, will be held at the Hanna Boy Center Auditorium. A VIP reception ($75) runs from 5:45 to 6:45 p.m., and the main talk ($35) will begin at 7 p.m.
Keller, the executive editor of the New York Times from 2003 to 2011, is no stranger to the area. He grew up in the Bay Area and remembers driving through Sonoma on the way to Mendocino many times as a kid.
He was approached by Marshall Project-founder Neil Barsky about the job back when the organization was just an idea, and agreed that there was an important gap in reporting that the outlet could fill. He joined the Marshall Project in 2014, the year it officially launched. Among its goals, as written on its website, is to “create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system.” Its name is inspired by the late civil rights activist Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American member of the Supreme Court.
“The criminal justice system is full of problems and dysfunction,” said Keller. “It doesn’t get covered nearly as much as it should. It’s hard to write about.”
He said law enforcement agencies are often suspicious of reporters. “Newspapers write about crime and policing, not about corrections, incarceration and rehabilitation,” said Keller.
Keller was a big “get” for such a new journalism outlet.
Keller won the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting in 1989 for “resourceful and detailed coverage of events in the USSR.” During his 30 years at the New York Times, Keller served as Moscow bureau chief during the collapse of the Soviet Union; Johannesburg bureau chief during the end of apartheid; and foreign editor, among titles, before graduating to become executive editor of the paper in 2003.
He stirred controversy during his tenure after he and his wife both wrote critical columns about a cancer patient who extensively tweeted about her experiences. McChesney has said he plans to touch on this – as well as Keller’s other experiences at the Times – during their conversation.
After writing a couple of op-eds on criminal justice to get a sense of how interested he was in the subject, Keller says, “I got hooked.”
At the Marshall Project, “There’s a little more of a sense of mission,” he said. “Most of the people here are very passionate about (criminal justice).”
Founded in 2014, the Marshall Project has been growing in size and reputation ever since. After only two years, the organization won a Pulitzer Prize in 2016 for the piece, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape.”
Recently, the project has turned its attention to California.
“We’re just starting a two-year project looking at California as a laboratory for reducing prison populations. It’s been now seven years since the Supreme Court decision,” said Keller, referring to the Brown v. Plata ruling which held that California’s state prison overcrowding was a violation of the Constitional prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.
“California really leads the country in reducing prison populations,” Keller continued. “Most of it was done at the county level because Sacramento gave counties the authority and money to figure out how to do it. There are 58 counties in California. That is 58 little laboratories. How do you reduce populations and what are the consequences of that?”
As for the future of journalism, Keller is optimistic – but not complacent. He says that while the Trump presidency has been good to newspaper profit margins, it doesn’t solve the underlying problems with the business model, “which has been an issue ever since Craig Newmark started Craigslist and sucked all the classified ad revenue out of newspapers.”
McChesney, moderator of the Feb. 26 event, will be able to provide additional insight in this regard as a former NPR correspondent. He worked on the National Desk before creating the organization’s first foreign desk, covering the civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua. The event will be a reunion of sorts for Keller and McChesney, who used to be neighbors in Washington, D.C.
“It appeared at one point there was real bipartisan agreement that criminal justice system needed an overhaul, so I want to talk to him what the prospects are,” said McChesney.
McChesney is the co-founder of the Sonoma Speaker Series, which kicked off in October 2016 and has hosted such speakers as Oscar-winning sound designer Randy Thom, LGBT activist Cleve Jones and NPR immigration reporter John Burnett.
“Journalism is in a state of chaos at the moment,” reflected Keller. “A fair number of news outlets are not going to survive or have already not survived. But there is a desperate need for journalism. Everybody is looking for a model.”