Bill Keller

Could we be witnessing the greatest act of editorial judgement in recent history in real time?

A week ago, journalist Emma Gilbey Keller published a piece in The Guardian US about the cancer tweeter/blogger Lisa Bonchek Adams, who has stage four breast cancer, which has spread to numerous other parts of her body. For several years, she’s been tweeting about every aspect of her life, using Twitter’s instant, unmediated advantage to communicate anguish, respite, cool reflection, practical stuff, etc. If you don’t like it, there’s no need to follow it, and 160,000 tweets hardly constitute a single op-ed with a unified point of view, or even one single practice or intent. But for Gilbey Keller they were:

“It’s clear that tweeting as compulsively as Lisa Adams does is an attempt to exercise some kind of control over her experience. She doesn’t deny that.”

Adams began tweeting frequently as a new drug failed (200 tweets/day, or 0.37 Razers, using the international standard measurement), and Gilbey Keller wondered:

“Is there such a thing as TMI? Are her tweets a grim equivalent of deathbed selfies, one step further than funeral selfies? Why am I so obsessed?”

Why, indeed? Gilbey Keller’s attribution of some programmatic intent to Adams was quickly slammed by commenters on the site, by Adams’ followers on Twitter, and by Adams herself — who noted that the article relied on DM tweets and emails she’d exchanged with Gilbey Keller, without the latter noting it. The Guardian eventually pulled the piece, citing breach of editorial practices for the non-citation.

Bad enough, but there is no situation so bad that a husband-editor cannot make it worse. Gilbey Keller’s hubby Bill Keller — former editor of The New York Times, now a columnist — weighed in a few days later with a column suggesting that Adams was favouring an “at all costs”-style defence against cancer — a “Verdun” — and that his father-in-law had died much more peacefully in a British hospital, under a palliative regime. He — oh, well, read it, if you want. If there is an ur-standard for the tendentious op-ed vamping about a deadly serious topic, this is it.

Twitter exploded, the webz exploded. It was a signal moment, uniting everyone. Adams herself noted that she had rejected many potential treatments as being not worth the cost/benefit, and also that she wasn’t dead yet. Everything imperious, arrogant, blithe about old one-way media was summed up in Keller’s column. But that didn’t get to the real core of it. What appeared to peeve Keller and Gilbey Keller was that Adams’ tweets were simply disregulated media, obeying no rules, nor hierarchies. She started tweeting, it caught on, and there it is. There was a very nasty sense that the Kellers were duffing up someone outside a hospital. “Give us the iPhone, lady.”

Keller is an easy guy to dislike, and many have taken the opportunity to do so. Born to the US establishment — his father a Chevron oil chairman, his college the exclusive, private Pomona — he is the sort of controlling centre-rightist who still gets classified as a “liberal” in the US. His credibility was damaged by his enthusiastic support for the Iraq War and his publication of the multiple fictions about WMDs by Judith Miller (now a Fox News presenter). In 2010, he co-published the WikiLeaks “cablegate” material — and, after a falling-out with Julian Assange, published a psychobabble hatchet job, suggesting that Assange had been deserted by his staff and was quietly going mad in the English countryside.

With the attack on Adams, however, he appears to have overshot the mark — something most people would realise as soon as they asked themselves, “should I write a column attacking a terminal cancer patient my wife has already treated shabbily and  been vilified for?”. Some criticism from the US Right has been politically motivated — a chance to slap the Grey Lady — but much of it simply an utter exasperation with the sort of regal hauteur that an op-ed writer could once get away with, down to the overblown middlebrow writing — cancer a “Verdun”, Jesus.

Certainly, it is a historic moment. With a bit of luck it will finish Keller off as a columnist. He’s a boring writer and unremarkable thinker, given — in the manner of an old media that refuses to accept it must compete for readers — a column as a compensation for moving on from the editor’s/executive chair (cf. Greg Hywood, the most boring man south of the Brisbane Line). Keller’s response is that the criticism was “political corr-“, yeah you got it. But no one attacking him or Gilbey Keller were defending her on the grounds of hurt towards her, etc. They were simply saying that the Kellers were wrong about what Adams was doing — and the Kellers were full of shit into the bargain. The response to their attack on Adams — “Don’t like it? Don’t follow it!” — is the sort of defence the Kellers might make.

But of course, it’s not the same. The NYT is still the liberal voice, with a few more important claims on its space than pursuing vendettas.