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Why Bill Keller left the New York Times to put a spotlight on criminal justice

This week marks the launch of the Marshall Project, a nonprofit journalism site that's devoted solely to the topic of criminal justice. It's certainly showing up at the right time. From the killing of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, MO, in August, to the surprisingly bipartisan support in Congress for reducing criminal sentences for drug offenses, it seems like the public (or at least elites) is paying much more attention to the criminal-justice system than it was even at the beginning of 2014, when the Marshall Project was announced.

(The name is a tribute to former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall; the site's founder, former Wall Street Journal reporter and finance professional Neil Barsky, has said that he was inspired by the book Devil in the Grove, about Marshall's efforts to exonerate four black men falsely accused of rape.)

The site has also generated interest because of who's in charge: its editor-in-chief is former New York Times top editor Bill Keller. Keller left the Times (where he was a columnist) to run the Marshall Project — despite not having much of a background in criminal justice.

I talked to Keller and Barsky about what they're hoping to do; how they're planning to deal with the challenges of justice reporting; and whether they think we're at a turning point in the national debate over criminal justice. And, of course, I asked them about their thoughts on Serial.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

On why they started the Marshall Project

Dara Lind:Why criminal justice? Why now?

Neil Barsky: First, why journalism? I left journalism in 1993, and I had other things I could have been doing. Having been in the business world and the journalism world and documentary film, other nonprofits, I have always— even increasingly — come to respect the power of journalism. The power of honest reporting, the power of storytelling, the power of objectivity and fairness. And when you have a subject that is inherently disturbing, then I think, really, journalism becomes a phenomenal weapon for implementing change.

Why criminal justice? This is my personal opinion, it's not the Marshall Project speaking: I feel criminal justice is something of a national disgrace. I grew up as a student of history, and I had and have tremendous respect for our Constitution and our Bill of Rights. I think frankly that the criminal justice system spits in the face of the Bill of Rights on a daily basis. The question is, what can anyone do to address that, if that's how you're inclined? And I felt that a journalism organization that approaches this system intelligently, fairly, honestly, can help lead to meaningful change.

And I reached out to Bill, because, you know, I think it's good to be ambitious.

The Marshall Project's homepage on the day of its launch

Bill Keller: I won't claim that my history with criminal justice goes back as far as Neil's does. Neither of us claims expertise. I've written off and on about isolated issues in criminal justice during the couple of stints I spent as a columnist. Obviously I edited a lot of criminal justice coverage. But it was never a particular focus of mine. It was really Neil who put it on my radar, and at the time I was a couple of years into my second stint as an op-ed columnist at the Times, with license to write about anything I wanted, and so I kind of decided to take it for a test drive, write a column or two on issues in the world that Neil wanted to make the focus of this new venture.

And I discovered first of all that the subject was endlessly fascinating and various. People superficially think of it as a single subject. But in fact, there's very little that you can't get into under the rubric of criminal justice, not just the very obvious — law enforcement, the courts, the corrections system — but immigration, drug policy, how we treat juveniles. It gets into the realm of education; race, obviously; inequality, obviously. It's a subject that gives you tremendous license to write about the society we live in. It was journalistically such a rich subject area, and one that I found very engaging.

I like the idea of we're doing journalism because that's what I do, but I like the idea of journalism with a sense of mission, a kind of focus, a sense of purpose. Which is not an agenda of specific reforms we want to enact, or people we want to elect, but problems that we want people to think clearly about and understand. And we'll also write some about solutions and whether or not they stand up to scrutiny.

I like the idea of journalism with a sense of mission, a kind of focus, a sense of purpose

Another thing that made this appealing to me personally was, I'd kind of reached the point where I was tired of thinking about gridlock. I actually think I'd said at the end of last year that I was going to devote myself — assuming I was going to be in the column-writing business through 2014 — I was going to just ignore Washington, where things seemed so conducive to despair, and write about cities and states, where at least you have a chance of interesting things happening, not paralysis.

But the thing about criminal justice is, there actually is some interesting political common ground about the extent and nature and magnitude of the problem, and even some common ground on things that can be done to make it better. Most of the common ground is on the relatively easy solutions — locking up fewer nonviolent drug offenders has a pretty broad consensus — the kind of stuff that was in Proposition 47 in California, where the campaign in favor of it was bankrolled in large part by conservatives. So those are the easy stuff. And we're going to write about a lot of stuff that's much harder and more contentious. But at least there's the potential that you can move incrementally toward something better.

And having a generation that has grown up with relatively low crime rates, memory of the crack panic, the urban riots, the fear that was so much a part of the discussion of criminal justice — the polls show that that generation, the Millennials, are much more receptive to the idea of alternatives to prison, for example.

Whether they're going to seize on this as an issue where they become active is another question. But at least the climate feels like it's ripe for some significant movement on these issues. We're here to keep the spotlight from flickering off.

On whether this is a turning point in the national debate

Dara Lind: Low-level drug offenses are lower-hanging fruit than other things that could be done. But this is politically very different from the environment of even five or 10 years ago, when it was assumed that there was no political benefit to being soft on crime. Even in the time since you guys announced the Marshall Project at the beginning of the year and now, there's more attention among mainstream white elites — I think Ferguson was either a turning point or an illustration of that. It seems to me, at least, that the public conversation is changing very rapidly. Do you think this is really the moment for reform?

Bill Keller: I would say we're in a moment of potential. There's compromise legislation, in Congress, but it hasn't passed yet. And yes, Rand Paul and Cory Booker have teamed up to support sentencing reform. But there's still a lot of members of the Senate and House who see that as a dangerous position to take. Yes, there's more coverage among the serious news organizations — broadcast, print, and online.

But we're a long way from saturation and a long way from countering the sort of negative stuff: the if-it-bleeds-it-leads local newscasts, the popular culture TV shows that tend to lionize the prosecutors and make defense lawyers out to be sleazebags, and just the sort of caricature of anybody with a criminal record as a kind of monster. I don't think we would be doing this if we didn't sense that there was some potential to move the conventional wisdom, and I'd like to think that the conventional wisdom is moving. But it ain't there yet.

Neil Barsky:The prison population rose last year. So with all this — with all the sentencing reform, and Proposition 47, which just passed, admittedly — population rose. So maybe if you base it on column inches, there seems to be an increase in awareness. But if a Martian came to America and looked at our criminal justice system — and didn't look at it last year or next year, just looked at it now — that Martian would say, "Wow, you guys have a huge problem on your hands."

Like Bill said, I think this is the very, very beginning of what we hope will be a long process, a long national debate, and a rethinking.

Bill Keller: Also, you don't have to go very far to see left and right parting company on issues of cost. I mean, a lot of the alternatives to prison — decent treatment of the mentally ill, addiction programs, or indigent defense, for example — those things cost money, and there's not a huge clamor for us to spend more money on these things. So that's going to be an area of separation. There's some debate over to what extent these public services can be privatized — there's not a lot of consensus there between left and right.

There's the issue of the death penalty, which is still a long way from any kind of a reconciliation. When you get into the really sensitive, highly emotional parts of criminal justice, like sex offenders, you know, there's a lot of room for reform that runs up against deep emotional resistance.

I'm delighted that more people are writing about this, that there seems to be a conference every week — I know because I get invited to all of them now — on some aspect of criminal justice. That's terrific. But anyone who looks at that and says, "Wow, problem nearly solved," is kidding themselves.

On the recent growth of criminal-justice journalism

Dara Lind: The other side of the coin, of course, is that there's more media coverage of these issues out there now than there was earlier this year! Is a world in which multiple media organizations are paying attention to this different from one in which you're a voice in the wilderness?

Bill Keller: We're happy to take full credit for having goaded the rest of the media landscape into paying attention for this. I'm delighted. And that's even before our launch, which is pretty good juju on our part.

Look. I'm delighted that my former employer has assigned a couple of reporters to pay attention to Rikers, for example. That the New Yorker, every other issue, has a long report on some aspect of criminal injustice. NPR is doing a lot more serious work. One of the first things I saw on Vox, actually, was Ezra interviewing Mark Kleiman; I followed him as a drug policy guy, but he's also a criminal justice guy.

One of the two stories that we did before launch, on juveniles being sucked into the criminal-justice system, that Dana Goldstein did — the reason that we didn't wait for launch is that she was competing with BuzzFeed, who has a reporter who's been writing some very good stuff about the consequences of truancy.

I think that's great. It does feel a bit like we're part of a wave. But I think, there's a long way to go before we've gotten back to the glory days, especially of investigative reporting, on this stuff, that existed before the media started dying of starvation.

Neil Barsky: Also, keep in mind we're a nonprofit. Our goal is not to make a lot of money. Our goal is not to beat out the competition. Our goal is to produce high-quality, high-impact journalism that affects the national debate about criminal justice. That's our goal. Journalism is our mechanism because we believe in its power. But our goal is not to scoop the New York Times. Or to scoop Vox.

If a Martian looked at our criminal justice system, he would say, "Wow, you guys have a huge problem"

On some level, we take pride in ourselves — we want the Marshall Project to be known for excellence, and we want it to have an impact, and there's always some degree of ego in what you're doing. But this is very different from when I was a reporter at the Journal, and I lived, ate, breathed to beat the competition.

So when I pick up the New Yorker, and Jennifer Gonnerman does this incredible investigation of a kid at Rikers who spent three years waiting for trial for stealing a backpack, I celebrate that. Arguably, 25 years ago, when I was a beat reporter on criminal justice, I would have said, "Darn, I should have had that story." I don't think we have the same attitude because we're nonprofit, and because we freely admit, I want criminal justice to matter in the national debate.

On race

Dara Lind: On the other hand, these are issues that people in affected communities — primarily people of color — have been aware of for some time. This is something I struggle with as another white justice reporter. But what do you think about how to write about issues that affect people of color, and that people of color have been aware of, for an audience that might not have been following — while acknowledging the impact of race and the difference of perspective?

Bill Keller: That's something Neil and I talked about in our first conversation and have talked about constantly since. And in our recruiting, we've been working very hard to make sure we had diversity — not just diversity of skin color, but diversity of perspectives and diversity of geography — on our staff. We've got eight reporters, two of whom are African American. Is that enough? Probably not. But we'll grow, and we pay a lot of attention to this issue. Our reporters, regardless of race, are acutely conscious that this is one of the most racialized subjects in American life.

We have African Americans on our board of directors, African Americans on our board of advisors, and they're not just there as a demonstration that we believe in diversity — they're there as resources that we can tap into. We've had Bryan Stevenson and Glenn Martin and other prominent African Americans who are respected advocates in this area come by to talk to the staff, and they're all on our speed dials.

Neil Barsky: Race and racism are integral to the criminal justice system. And it is central to the way we approach this.

I hate numbers. I don't feel like we're where we have to be with diversity. But to be accurate, we have 25 full-time employees, five of whom are African American. I'm not saying that's good or bad, that's just a fact. A year from now, I hope and expect that as we continue to grow, that ratio will improve.

We talk about this internally, and how central race should be. I would say that we all approach this issue mindful, whatever skin color we are, of the centrality of race in the criminal justice system. And I think that if you look at our reporting over the next few months, you'll see that reflected.

On objectivity

Dara Lind: Is there any tension between objectivity and openly pointing out that something is an injustice?

Bill Keller: There's a philosophical question you've just asked, and a pragmatic question.

I have never believed that impartial journalism — which is the word I prefer to objectivity, just because objectivity sounds like a state of being that doesn't really exist — I've never believed that impartial journalism meant that you didn't reach conclusions, that you gave equal ink to every point of view, even the preposterous points of view. Impartial journalism doesn't mean you have to pretend that evolution doesn't exist, or that climate change is a myth. What it means is that you go into your reporting with an open mind. You're led by the facts. Sometimes those facts lead to a conclusion; sometimes they lead to a disagreement.

I have great respect for the advocacy kind of journalism. I've practiced it a bit myself. But I think both kinds have their virtues. And the virtue of the impartial form of journalism is that you're less likely to be preaching to the choir. If you can convince readers that you went into the subject with a genuinely open mind, and were guided by the facts, not by some ideological groove that you travel in, you're more likely to get an open mind in response. You're more likely to get people to pay serious attention to the ideas that you're trying to lay out.

We're going to publish both kinds of journalism. We're going to invite people to write opinion, which will be labeled as such; we're going to encourage debate; we're going to invite readers to join in that debate. We're not shunning or disavowing opinion. We would like the Marshall Project to be a kind of clearinghouse where people who care about these issues come to read and participate in argument. But our reporting staff is going to do reporting. And I hope it will have impact and credibility and be great to read.

Bill Keller at a New York Times editorial meeting in 2008 (Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images)

On Serial — and how it's different from the Marshall Project

Dara Lind: Have either of you been listening to Serial?

Bill Keller: Everybody in this office is utterly addicted to Serial. It is our sort of water-cooler conversation. I include myself in that, too.

Dara Lind: As experts in the field, what do you think of it?

Neil Barsky: Don't answer that question!

Bill Keller: First of all, we're not experts in the field!

Dara Lind: As professionals.

Bill Keller: As people who wake up in the morning worried about these subjects.

I don't look at Serial as a sort of reflection on the state of the criminal justice system, or the state of public support for criminal justice reform. It's just a really well done mystery story, and the mystery is both the whodunit, or what actually happened, and the following one reporter through the process of discovery.

When I'm listening to Serial, I'm not thinking, so much, "What does this reveal about the state of the criminal justice system?" I guess you could read it that way. There are clearly some areas that the investigators gave short shrift to, from what you can tell halfway through the show.

Our underlying purpose is to shed a light on a system, and systemic problems.

But I'm listening to it as a story, and maybe secondarily as a journalist, the architecture of the story. How does she decide what to tell us when, and what to withhold? How do you sustain something like this for 12 episodes? I suspect Sarah Koenig would be delighted to hear that there's a robust argument about, how do we think it comes out? That's a tribute to storytelling; I'm not sure it's a great comment on the criminal justice system one or the other.

Dara Lind: What's the difference between a story like Serial, which is great storytelling that's very focused on the whodunit, and a story like the New Yorker Rikers piece, which is definitely well-crafted storytelling, but is primarily being celebrated for what it illuminates and indicts about the system?

Bill Keller: They're both high expressions of the art of storytelling. Jen Gonnerman's piece on the kid in Rikers was designed first and foremost to demonstrate a serious dysfunction in our system— that somebody accused of a relatively minor crime and convicted of nothing spent three years in a hellhole of a jail is, I think, generally reason for indignation. I don't think Sarah Koenig is trying to make us indignant about the criminal justice system, I think she's just trying to keep us listening week to week. They're both great.

Dara Lind: And the Marshall Project is more in the Gonnerman mold.

Bill Keller: Yeah. Believe me, if we could figure out a way to tell the story of some aspect of the criminal justice system by doing a radio serial, we'd love to do it. We're interested in all different kinds of ways of telling stories. And sometimes, a great yarn doesn't require a sort of nut graf, or a "Therefore, QED" to drive a point home. You can tell the story of an injustice without saying, "By the way, readers, this is an injustice." And we'll do some of those stories too.

Our underlying purpose is to shed a light on a system, and systemic problems. Whether we do that by telling the story of an individual, or telling a story through data, or telling a story through argument.

On goals and predictions

Dara Lind: What does a super-successful Marshall Project look like three years out? What would be a total failure?

Neil Barsky: We don't think about the second part of the question.

Bill Keller: Failure would be we're not here anymore!

Neil Barsky: We have high aspirations. We want to produce high-quality journalism that makes a dent in the national perception of criminal justice. That's very broad. Bill talks a lot about impact of specific stories. Obviously, we would consider that a prerequisite of what we're doing.

I don't think we have specific, quantifiable goals. We certainly want to help stimulate a national conversation about criminal justice reform. We've said that from the beginning. That, in large measure, may be happening on its own as well. But we want to participate and help that along. We have a journalistic goal of excellence and impact, and a criminal justice goal of change.

Bill Keller: We're going to obviously tweak things, and tinker with things, and things will change along the way. We're not going to be all there on Day 1. I would counsel a little patience — not just in judging us, but in judging any new venture, particularly new ventures that try to come at something in a fairly high-minded way.

Dara Lind: In other words, you're asking for the right to a fair trial, not the right to a speedy trial.

Bill Keller: Yes. Give us some months, at least, to show the variety of what we can do.


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