The Bill Keller Trap

Editor of the New York Times drops another doozy of a column

Bill Keller, the editor of The New York Times, is a Luddite. “I don’t think I’m a Luddite,” he writes in this coming Sunday’s Times Magazine, but he is. In “The Twitter Trap,” his most self-righteous critique of the Internet yet, Keller likens Facebook to crystal meth, accuses Twitter and YouTube of “nibbling away at our attention spans,” and argues that “we are outsourcing our brains to the cloud.”

And at what cost? “Facebook friendship and Twitter chatter are displacing real rapport and real conversation, just as Gutenberg’s device displaced remembering,” he writes. Never mind that Gutenberg’s device made the existence of The New York Times possible.

Why did Keller write this piece? Why does he keep writing these inane columns, despite the withering criticism he gets every time? He’s starting to make his motives clearer: Bill Keller actually loves the Internet. He loves the Internet the same way he loves Arianna Huffington. The same way he loves WikiLeaks. He loves the Internet because he needs it.

The purpose of Keller’s column is not to warn society that social media is turning us into cyborgs, though that is certainly its conceit. The purpose of Keller’s column is to invite, in his words, “blowback from passionate tweeters, from aging academics who stoke their charisma by overpraising every novelty and from colleagues at The Times who are refining a social-media strategy to expand the reach of our journalism.”

It is for that same reason that, on May 11, Keller tweeted “#TwitterMakesYouStupid. discuss.” He is trying to achieve with his column what the Times, despite its status as the paper of record, has such a hard time achieving: “buzz.”

Keller the editor is sentimental. The world is changing, and the Times hasn’t caught up. That probably strikes some fear in his heart. But Keller the columnist is merely desperate. As soon as he decided to have a voice, he found he had nothing to say. So he shouted.

He’s a good newspaper editor, no doubt about it. You cannot oversee the most influential newspaper in the country and not be one.  But as a columnist, he isn't doing his staff any favors.