Keller’s Letter To Award Committee Comes To Light, Journal Responds

nytwsj.jpgEarlier this week, New York Times‘ media columnist David Carr wrote a piece summarizing the last two years at The Wall Street Journal since it was sold by the Bancroft family to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

The article boiled down to the fact that the publication has become, in Carr’s opinion, much more right-wing and conservative, especially in its D.C. bureau, following the takeover. Immediately after the piece was published, we received a comment from Robert Thompson, managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, who accused Carr of bringing up old rivalries between the two publications. Although it has to be mentioned that in his statement it was Thompson who rehashed old fights, by mentioning how last year Times‘ executive editor Bill Keller wrote a memo to “a prize committee” urging them to look closer at some of the Journal‘s stories before handing out awards for excellence in journalism.

And in case you thought that would be the end of it, you were wrong: now that the two print titans have each other in the crosshairs, neither is backing down. Oooh, fight!

Today The New York Observer published Keller’s year-old letter to the George Polk Awards committee, regarding Journal writer Shai Oster’s piece on Three Gorges Dam in China.

Said Keller:

“In your release you state that subsequent to The Journal‘s series on Three Gorges, ‘China acknowledged that it must relocate as many as 4 million people.’

The basis of this claim appears to be a story carried by local Chinese media and initially picked up by foreign media after a Chinese conference convened to discuss the dam last fall.

The New York Times, which also wrote an article about Three Gorges as part of an extensive 10-part series on China’s environmental problems, followed up on the claim of relocating 4 million people. We found — as did The Financial Times, The Associated Press and Chinese media — that it involved little more than repackaged resettlement plans related to the expansion of the city of Chongqing. An official in that city briefly used the publicity about the dam to enhance an ongoing campaign for more central government funds to expand the provincial-size city. That program has only an indirect relationship to the dam itself. It began well before environmental problems at the dam became clear and it will take up to 20 years to complete. The Chongquing official who initially made the claim later retracted it. Beijing has officially and repeatedly denied that environmental problems at the dam have resulted in any new plans for resettling people…

The problems at the dam are real, but any claim that China plans to move so many people as a result of the problems, much less as a result of any newspaper story, is false.”

The Observer piece does mention that Keller may have had a modicum of self-awareness, as he ended the letter by saying, “We acknowledge that we call attention to it in part because it involves an entry that competed with one of ours.”

Now that the year-old memo has come to light, The Journal is treating it as the latest insult in the rivalry between the papers, and released its own memo responding to Keller’s letter, sent a year ago to the Polk folks by the Journal‘s then-managing editor Marcus Brauchli:

Dear Dr. Spector:

Rebecca Blumenstein
has sent me word of a complaint by Bill Keller about the language in a press release about the Polk awarded to Shai Oster.

Mr. Keller’s claim is a surprise to us, and we believe it is without merit. He bases his assertion on a government news-agency report that conflicts with other government news-agency reports he could as easily have cited. Our articles, which your press release describes, rest on our reporting.

In his letter, Mr. Keller challenges the accuracy of your press release and, by implication, our reporting. He asserts that the relocation of four million people has “only an indirect relationship to the dam itself.” He goes on to say that “any claim that China plans to move so many people as a result of the problems, much less as the result of any newspaper story, is false.”

We have never claimed that China announced the relocations as the result of our articles. But China is planning relocations and they are connected to the environmental situation surrounding the Three Gorges. “Some local officials say the new relocation is purely about spurring economic growth,” Shai Oster’s article of Nov. 6 says, “but the government’s own researchers recommended millions of relocations to respond to the environmental hazard.”

Mr. Keller should know this: his newspaper followed the Journal‘s lead in writing about relocations connected to the troubles at the dam. “The Chinese government has announced that it will relocate an additional three million to four million people from the banks of the Yangtze River because of the construction of the Three Gorges Dam,” Howard French wrote in the Times. The New York Times hasn’t published a correction, as far as we know.

Mr. Keller also suggests that he is unable to determine “the pedigree” of the claim that China hopes to relocate more people as a result of problems surrounding the building of the dam. Our sourcing is crystal clear in the article. We relied on interviews with government officials, China’s official Xinhua News Agency — the same agency Mr. Keller cites in his letter — scholars and members of government-backed think tanks who provided the research for resettlement plans.

On Nov. 27, several weeks after our story ran, Chinese cabinet officials held a press conference in which they defended the dam, even as they acknowledged rising costs to address its environmental impact. The Wall Street Journal and the Times both filed pieces on the government response. The Journal included the official’s assertion that the additional relocations were not related to the dam. The Times chose not to include that denial in its story, or to address the issue of the resettlements at all.

In our articles last year, we acknowledged that there are several factors at play behind the relocations, which we cited in our coverage. But there is no question that the paramount reason for the pending relocation lies in the environmental problems triggered by the dam, which were known to government officials long before we first reported them.

For years, the subject of the Three Gorges Dam was so sensitive that discussion of it was virtually banned in China, despite growing evidence of problems as the water level rose. Journal reporter Shai Oster’s story on the unforeseen environmental problems at the dam on Aug. 29, along with his subsequent coverage, finally broke that silence and spurred vital reporting and questioning of the project that continues today.

We take great pride that your committee found our coverage worthy of a Polk, and we stand by our reporting.


Marcus W. Brauchli
Managing Editor
The Wall Street Journal

So there’s all the facts folks: backstabbing a year ago over some drama with dams in China have led to a flurry of press releases and the revelation of previously private letters this week. Why don’t these two publishers just make a burn book already and get it over with?

Update: The saga continues. Today, Keller wrote an email to the Observer defending his letter to the Polk committee. “I don’t think the Journal can blame me for its recent Pulitzer drought,” he said.

Read More: Keller’s Letter, Revealed: What Times Ed Told Committee About JournalThe New York Observer

Previously: Carr’s Column Rekindles Rivalry Between WSJ, NYT