Since Keller runs the newsroom of what is arguably the nation's most important newspaper, the question arises whether Roger Ailes' outfit can get a fair shake from the Times.
"Wonder if Keller's comments trashing Fox News will hurt his reporters' ability to cover Fox and Ailes," tweeted Gabriel Sherman, who writes for New York magazine and the New Republic.
In comments at the City University of New York graduate journalism school, Keller said late last week: "I think if you're a regular viewer of Fox News, you're among the most cynical people on planet Earth. I cannot think of a more cynical slogan than ‘Fair and Balanced.'"
I emailed Keller to ask whether those strong words could suggest a biased approach to Fox, which has had more than its share of complaints about the Times' coverage (and that of other news organizations as well).
“I don’t think anyone at Fox believes they are producing even-handed, impartial coverage.”—Bill Keller
"First of all," he responded, "the question of whether Times reporters can write fairly about Fox is answered by the fact they do it, over and over. Tim Arango, Dave Carr, and Brian Stelter have set the standard for fair, tough, incisive coverage of Fox, its business, and its on-air personalities.
"As far as I can tell, they are professionally indifferent to that fact that Fox maintains a stable of commentators who make a good living bashing the Times."
There's no question that Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck, and Sean Hannity routinely rip the paper as the epitome of left-wing journalism, but they are in the opinion business. Times editorial writers and columnists (such as the soon-to-depart Frank Rich) hit Fox News pretty hard as well. But Keller is in a different category as the paper's top news executive.
Which brings us to his second point, which he describes as part of a continuing critique.
"I've been recycling that comment about the ‘Fair and Balanced' slogan for four or five years," Keller says. "I don't think anyone at Fox believes they are producing even-handed, impartial coverage. They think their mission is to balance what they perceive as a left-wing mainstream media by providing news and comment with a conservative slant. That's their right, but to say otherwise, to pretend to be something else, does strike me as cynical."
Many Times readers might agree that the outlook fueling Fox's conservative commentary bleeds into its news coverage; others strongly disagree. But Fox journalists such as Bret Baier and Shepard Smith don't want to be lumped in with the likes of Beck, any more than Times beat reporters want their work to be seen as reflecting the viewpoint of Paul Krugman.
Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.