The glittering New York Times building in Manhattan is a striking, architectural wonder, exuding success and power. Unfortunately, the reality of the paper’s financial decline is far less glamorous.

The world’s most famous newspaper is struggling like most media companies. What better way to humanise and sex-up the aging organisation than to allow public engagement with Times executive editor Bill Keller and managing editor Jill Abramson at an event called “Behind the Scenes at The New York Times”?. It was also a way to make some much-needed cash at $20 a head.

On a rainy Monday evening, the mostly grey-haired brigade filed into the lavish TimesCentre to hear two senior hacks talk principally about the past, a supposedly golden age of journalism.

Keller, just back from Iran and his first page one stories in 14 years, had a laconic charm. Abramson, central in the Times publishing consistently bogus information on Iraq’s non-existent WMDs before the 2003 war, had a nervous energy with a slow and deliberate New York drawl. The audience clapped and laughed at the appropriate moments.

Their journalistic insights were far and few between — both talked about reading the Times first in the morning, followed closely by the Wall Street Journal and the internet was largely praised not damned as an innovator — but both subjects have had a varied media career.

Keller has been based in Moscow and South Africa — met and interviewed Nelson Mandela and wrote a book about him — and Abramson was the hard-nosed type, who “never believes in access journalism” and not going to establishment parties. She grew up believing that “what the Times wrote was the truth.” She wasn’t opposed to speaking warmly of the famed Gridiron Club, Washington’s oldest and most exclusive journalistic club.

When the issue of web reporting finally emerged, Abramson said that she believed it was important to “resist the temptation to file constantly online. Take a step back.” It’s good advice, though not one always considered by her colleagues. A friend here in New York works on the Times online desk — wisely integrated with the print reporters — and she’s always writing stories with little hard information. Print journalists then take the story up later in the day and finish the job.

Keller offered little indication that his paper knew how to manage the web onslaught. “We’re exploring any way we can to make money from web journalism”, he said. He rightly praised the Times blog, The Lede, as an invaluable aggregator of Iran-related material.

Keller did reveal some interesting news about the abduction and recent escape of Times reporter David Rohde, kidnapped in November last year in Afghanistan along with a driver and local reporter. The vast majority of the mainstream media remained silent about the ordeal after requests from the paper itself.

Keller said that he had spoken to Rohde that morning and felt vindicated by the decision:

“I was relieved this morning when I talked to David and he said, ‘By the way, thank you for not making a public event out of this. We heard the people who kidnapped me were obsessed with my value in the marketplace. If there were a lot of news stories, they would have held me much tighter.”

During the question and answer sessions, the first woman asked why the paper “wanted to portray Israel as a Goliath, an occupier, settlement builders and unforgiving” (maybe because the country is an occupier that continually builds illegal settlements?)

Another, a religious looking, bearded Jew, demanded to know why the paper “does not acknowledge the Palestinian refusal to accept the Jewish state.” Keller simply said that, “our goal is not to construct good and evil and readers should make their own judgement. Our job isn’t to say who the villain in the Middle East is.”

I asked whether the Times felt any responsibility for publishing so many bogus reports on Saddam Hussein and whether they believed in accountability in journalism when some of their senior journalists were complicit in running Bush administration spin? Keller acknowledged that “we did a lot wrong, there was too much incredulous writing, but we didn’t have access to classified information. There is an urban myth that the Times took the country to war; the Bush administration took the country to war.”

Antony Loewenstein is a journalist and author of My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution

Peter Fray

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