BPR Interviews: Bill Keller

Bill Keller is the editor-in-chief of The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization focused on the American criminal justice system. Keller won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the fall of the Soviet Union and previously served as Executive Editor for The New York Times.

BPR: Why did you decide to leave The New York Times for The Marshall Project?

BK: Neil Barksy, a [former] Wall Street Journal reporter, called me in the beginning of 2014 and asked if I would talk with him about coming on to be his Editor-in-Chief [at the Marshall Project]. At the time I was writing a column for the Op-Ed page for The New York TimesI figured I would take the opportunity to write a couple columns about criminal justice to get myself a little better educated about what it would be like focusing exclusively on that…I was just bowled over by how dysfunctional the criminal justice system is in most states. So I thought from a journalistic point of view that this is a target-rich environment — there’s just lots to write about. I also was getting kind of frustrated with the general paralysis of Washington. The partisanship is so deep that nothing gets done. And criminal justice looked like it might be an exception. For one thing, there’s a genuine bipartisan common ground on at least some justice issues. And for another thing, most criminal justice issues are decided on the state-level, and a lot of states are experimenting. It felt like something you could write about and actually maybe move the needle a little bit.

BPR: With The Marshall Project’s content often covering a lot of broken criminal justice systems, where do you think the line falls between journalistic objectivity and advocacy?

BK: We try to make it pretty clear that we’re not an advocacy group. By that I mean that we don’t endorse legislations or civic solutions. We write about them…We hear about something going well, and we send someone to report on it — something like how Kentucky has been trying to do away with bail, or how a jail in Miami, which had a horrible record on rape in prison, had installed a lot of cameras and set out to resolve the horror of prison rape. But whether we’re writing about something that seems to work or we’re writing about something that’s clearly dysfunctional, we try to apply the same standards of skepticism right to the facts, not holding any assumptions. Here, because we’re more focused [on criminal justice], there is a specific sense that we want to move the needle. But that doesn’t mean we have an agenda of specific change we want; it just means we want there to be a sense of public urgency, that this issue matters. We should talk about it; we should acknowledge what’s not working and then try to find solutions.

BPR: Do you think that for-profit journalism outlets are able to push boundaries when writing about the criminal justice system in the same way that more specialized nonprofit outlets can?

BK: I think The New York Timeshas tried pretty squarely to look at the issues of race and the criminal justice system. I like to think that The Marshall Project has prodded people to write a little bit more about this stuff. I can’t take sole credit for it, but part of our job is to be a catalyst and to keep people from wandering off to some bright shiny object — to keep them focused on these issues…But as a general rule, the press has not historically done a great job writing about either race or criminal justice. We write about crime, but that’s not the same as writing about criminal justice. When I was at The New York Times, I was Executive Editor for eight years, and we had people who covered the police and who covered the courts, but we didn’t have a reporter full-time covering prisons, even though New York is full of them. It just sort of wasn’t the norm, I guess. I think some of it has to do with it being an uncomfortable subject. When you write about criminal justice, you’re writing about marginalized populations…New news organizations are rising, but not all of them are investing in reporting, so not that many newspapers or broadcasters have resources to spare, and they need to be persuaded that what they cover is really important.

BPR: Is it a journalist’s responsibility to explicitly confront racism in the criminal justice system, especially when it appears that some politicians are unwilling to?

BK: Of course. Not only racism — I don’t think everything we write has to be written through just the lens of racism, but clearly race is a part of almost every story we write. Sometimes it’s the peripheral element, and sometimes it’s the center of the story. And I don’t think we should shy away from that. I’m in favor of uninhibited conversation, even on subjects that make some people uncomfortable.

BPR: What can people do to help improve and rebuild the criminal justice system?

BK: Pay attention to these issues…It seems like all the people who are sympathetic to reform want to be defense lawyers. And that’s great, there aren’t enough defense lawyers. But if you really want to change the system, a great way to do it would be to change the mentality of prosecutors…There’s this prosecutor culture that [instead of] being about getting a just result, it tends to be about keeping score. And prosecutors get promoted or not based on how many times they win. And so that kind of alpha dog mentality can make it very tempting to withhold evidence, to ignore signs that you’re picking out the wrong person. I think the only way you change the culture of prosecutors is to have idealistic young lawyers going into the District Attorney’s office. I don’t know if that would work, but at least it could get a conversation going.