NY Times Ombud Margaret Sullivan Defends Bill Keller’s Cancer Column

Public Editor Margaret Sullivan defends opinion of paper’s former executive editor, but suggested it may have lacked sensitivity

New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan posted a column Monday afternoon largely in defense of columnist Bill Keller’s controversial Sunday opinion story about breast cancer blogger Lisa Adams while acknowledging his piece had issues with “tone and sensitivity.”

“I don’t make a practice of commenting on whether or not I agree with columnists, or whether or not I like their columns in general or on a particular day,” Sullivan, who serves in an ombudsman-like capacity, wrote about the column penned by the paper’s former executive editor.

“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.”

Sullivan suggested that running a column with the opposing viewpoint from Keller’s might be appropriate. The column created a flurry online.

Also read: Bill Keller Cancer Patient Column Inspires Online Backlash

bill-keller-cancer-column-nyt-screengrabSullivan’s column included a response from Keller himself, who declined to comment for an earlier story by TheWrap. Keller acknowledged the anger surrounding his piece and clarified his intention in an email to the public editor.

“I tried to be clear in the column that I respect Lisa Adams’s choices, and I meant it. I wish every cancer victim could have those options – to fight with all the resources of medicine, or not,” Keller wrote to Sullivan. “By living her disease in such a public way, by turning her hospital room into a classroom, she invites us to think about and debate some big, contentious issues.”

“I think some readers have misread my point, and some – the most vociferous – seem to believe that anything short of an unqualified ‘right on, Lisa!’ is inhumane or sacrilegious. But I’ve heard from readers who understood the point and found it worth grappling with.”

guardian-emma-keller-screengrabKeller’s piece ran a few days after his wife, Emma Keller, published a story in the Guardian about Adams and how she shared her struggle with cancer on social media. The headline for that article, “Forget funeral selfies. What are the ethics of tweeting a terminal illness?” was excoriated in the comments section, and the story was later removed from the site pending investigation.

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Bill Keller said he was inspired to write his story because of his wife’s interest in Adams.

“Except for the snarky headline, which Emma didn’t write, I thought she wrote a sensitive and provocative piece, clearly aimed at stimulating a reader discussion of this hyper-transparent world we inhabit,” he wrote.

“My interest, as I said in the column, was in the continuing debate in American medicine about how aggressively to fight terminal diseases if the fight may mean trading quality of life for quantity. My view is that this is a highly personal choice that should be made by patients in consultation with their families and physicians. It is not always presented that way to patients. I don’t think either of the Keller pieces was a ‘slam’ of Lisa Adams or her choices.”