What Else Is Wrong With Bill Keller’s Cancer-Shaming
By now, just about everyone has weighed in on the Kellerdammerung, the his and hers columns striving to cancer-shame of Lisa Bonchek Adams — criticism for the sin of not doing cancer the “right way.” Beyond what’s been written on our home turf, I’d point you to this and this and this and this and this and this roundup or more recent scorn– and especially this, from The New York Times‘ Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan. (For a contrary view, check out longtime friend-of-the-blog TBogg, who doesn’t think the Kellers’ sins, if any, should have earned the ire of the ‘net mob.)
Sullivan’s piece is so interesting because it is (ISTM, at least), as direct a condemnation of Bill Keller’s column as one could expect from within the organization he used to lead. She writes:
In this case, I’ll go so far as to say that there are issues here of tone and sensitivity. For example, when Ms. Adams has made it so abundantly clear in her own work that she objects to the use of fighting metaphors in describing experiences with cancer, it was regrettable to use them throughout a column about her, starting with the first sentence. It suggests that Mr. Keller didn’t make a full effort to understand the point of view of the person he’s writing about on the very big and public stage that is The Times. And although I haven’t read all of Ms. Adams’s writing, readers are complaining about other examples of this disconnect. The Times should consider publishing some opposing points of view, possibly in the form of an Op-Ed column from a contributor.
In addition, Mr. Keller’s views here fall within what journalists would call “fair comment” only to the extent that they are based on facts.
I know that to an outsider (like me) it might have been nice if Sullivan had gone all chapter and verse on the many flaws in Keller’s piece, but I can tell you with real certainty that within the building, that last line kills. A humiliation, very public, and immediately understood by Keller and every one of his former subordinates.*
At this point, a bit of housekeeping: I’m not going to engage Emma Keller’s column at all; it’s been taken down, and the essential point — if you feel uncomfortable at someone else’s presence and material on social media, don’t f**king read it. Unfollow. Take the blog off your RSS feed. There. Was that so hard? (See also the Guardian’s official explanation for why the piece vanished from the site.)
I’m not even going to try to parse the rich vein of fail Bill Keller manages to mine. The undertone (not very under-, actually) of “won’t this irksome woman please shut up” is ugly enough.
The conflation of an “incurable” diagnosis with an asserted fate of imminent death is intellectual sleight of hand of the least honorable stripe. The factual errors in Keller’s account, noted by Sullivan above, are troubling as hell. The implication, that there is one “right” way to engage cancer, and that Adams was failing in her obligation to meet death with due deference, is both wretched as a direct comment on a single life, not just wrong, but cruel — and, of course, makes it much harder to get to what Keller claims is his point, that the modern American medicine does end-of-life poorly. There’s a lot to talk about there, to be sure — but Keller doesn’t actually get to that, so busily does he scold Adams for failing to conform to his expectations. (You may take from this that I don’t agree with TBogg and Soonergrunt that Keller was more awkward than awful.)
But all of that and more has been amply discussed already. What I want to add at this point is a gloss on something Times’ Public Editor Sullivan wrote:
As a columnist, Mr. Keller – by definition – has a great deal of free rein. As I’ve written before, Times opinion editors very rarely intrude on that process by steering a writer away from a topic or killing a column before it runs. It’s a columnist’s job, in short, to have an opinion and to speak it freely. That’s as it should be.
A line often attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the former New York senator, makes this point well: “You’re entitled to your own opinion; you’re not entitled to your own facts.”
And therein lies the nub: (many) opinion columns and columnists are accurate but wrong. Factual mistakes are bad (and they are legion), but the deeper problem is the distortion field of isolating facts from the patterns that give them meaning.
That is: Keller’s largest failings in his column weren’t his point-by-point errors, the kinds of things that can be addressed by simple corrections. They were rather lapses of reporting and analysis. He asserted rather than established that Lisa Adams was (a) dying and (b) “fighting” her disease — and but what was worse, used those two obvious misreadings of Adams own work to make unsupported claims about the American approach to end-of-life. He gets to do that move, according to Sullivan, because it’s his job to have an opinion.
And so it is — but still, what should Keller know and be able to state about, say, where the US goes astray in end-of-life care? What does he need to do beyond get excited by (to be charitable here) a misreading of his source?
Well, paraphrasing Henri Poincare here, it falls to the thinker to decide which facts are worthy of inclusion into the argument — which is to say that facts gain meaning and their connection to truth or falsity, by the structure of argument we build around them.
Keller was a crap journalist who arrived at an unsupported conclusion not because he got how long Lisa Adams had endured stage 4 cancer wrong, but because the nuggets of fact he deployed — both the ones he got right and the other ones — were already lodged in a flawed argument, that the specific experience of his father in law adequately frames any circumstance in which one faces an incurable illness.
There’s lots more one could ask, and then pick apart. But the point isn’t that Keller did a hack job, though he did. It’s that these kinds of issues are the stuff of elite opinion “journalism.” It’s how you get a David Brooks column on inequality that conflates arguments about the 1 % and the 5 %. It’s how you get the Washington Post op-ed page more or less in its full glory (sic!). The problem lies with the assumption that facts are discrete — quanta of reality. The ones that go wrong can be corrected, and as for the rest, they can be organized anyway an opinion holder chooses to no ill effect.And that’s where editors need to intervene. Not to tell Keller he can’t write about end of life, or Bobo about income inequality, or Douthat about lady bits, or Will about climate change or Rubin about anything. But they have to do so in a way that stands the test not merely of simple accuracy, but of robustness. How easy is it to knock the piece to shreds? Too easy? Get me rewrite!
Ultimately, while it’s great that Sullivan publicly eviscerated someone who, not that long ago, ran the Grey Lady (no longer) of 43rd St….she still gives too much license she gives not just Keller but the whole stable on the back pages of her paper. I get to joke that David Brooks is always wrong — but I’m not nearly as far off as I should be.
So, yeah, I’m pretty appalled that the Kellers both thought that shouting at a cancer patient was a clever way to frame something deeper they thought they were saying — but I’m at least as depressed that the system of journalism in which they are both embedded both enables and rewards such crap.
*I also love that Sullivan managed to get an elegantly sly slam on both BoBo and Dowd into her stiletto work on Keller:
I don’t make a practice of commenting on whether I agree with columnists, or if I like their columns in general or on a particular day, whether it’s David Brooks on pot-smoking or Maureen Dowd on Chris Christie.
Images: Tommaso Dolabella, Martyrdom of Thomas Becket, 1627
Leonardo da Vinci, Anatomy of the Neck, c. 1515bad writing, Journalism and its discontents comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.