The Marshall Project (Messiah Du Jour)

In case you missed it, The New York Times announced that we’re saved. Its former editor cum columnist Bill Keller is leaving dead wood behind to fix the criminal justice system.

Bill Keller, a columnist at The New York Times and its former executive editor, will leave the paper to become editor in chief of The Marshall Project, a nonprofit journalism start-up focused on the American criminal justice system.

“It’s a chance to build something from scratch, which I’ve never done before,” Mr. Keller said, “and to use all the tools that digital technology offers journalists in terms of ways to investigate and to present on a subject that really matters personally.”

Named after Thurgood (and not Penny), The Marshall Project has demurely undertaken the heavy lifting to “launch a national conversation” about “the scandal that our criminal justice system is.”  Apparently, nobody has been talking about it up to now. At least nobody who matters.

So what is this Marshall Project that will change everything?

The Marshall Project was founded by former hedge fund manager Neil Barsky, who will serve as publisher. Mr. Barsky is also a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and directed the 2013 documentary film KOCH.

The Marshall Project will have an annual operating budget of $4-$5 million, and a full-time staff of 20-25 journalists. Funding for the Marshall Project will come from foundations and individuals.

Yes, you read that correctly. Our saviors will be 20-25 journalists, under the tutelage of Keller and Neil Barsky, a former hedge fund manager turned WSJ reporter. See any mention of criminal defense lawyers in there?  Neither do I. But then, ask any journalist and they will tell you with the utmost sincerity that they know more about particle physics than any physicist, and more about how to fix the legal system than us lawyers.  With Keller at the helm, given all the really great ideas the New York Times has had with how to fix the system, what could go wrong?


Not everyone is as awed as I am that Bob Keller has chosen to lead us to the promised land. Gawker was unimpressed:

On a good day, [Keller’s] columns were unremarkable. On too many days, though, they were old and musty, and infused all too often with an ill-concealed urge to be snide and hold grudges and generally comport himself as the Angry Old Establishment Man version of Gawker, without the sparkling wit.

But look on the bright side: those columns could have continued for decades. Instead, he is up and leaving the paper to lead The Marshall Project, a new nonprofit journalism startup focused on America’s criminal justice system. The Times gets a graceful way to shed some dead weight from its institutional past, and Keller gets to start anew with a comfortable gig and a good cause. This is a smart decision by Bill Keller. Redemption awaits.

Does that constitute faint or damning praise?  At most, it seems to be “no harm, no foul” for the good cause piece.

What struck me was the monumental lack of humility about this “start-up,” a disturbing word as it suggests a for-profit venture.  This was echoed in a twit by Tina Brown, which added in the “cutting edge” cliché.  Because it’s not like Radley Balko, Andrew Cohen and Brad Heath haven’t already been tilling this field for years.

Where was Keller when he was Times’ editor to push this envelope, instead allowing the old hag to produce some of the worst, most ignorant reporting that did as much damage as mandatory minimums? Or, of course, the perennial NYT editorial solutions that raised clueless and simplistic to new heights?  Who explains to these outsiders that their messianic vision may not be nearly as brilliant as they think it is?

The notion, I guess, is that Bill Keller is a huge, venerated name in journalism, and brings with him a level of gravitas that the journalists who have long labored to expose the failures of the system lack.  After all, how many times has Balko gotten a congratulatory twit from former Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown?

Then again, at the trench level, some of us have been doing yeoman’s work on such issues for years. Not only are we so far below the radar that it’s as if we never existed, but there appears to be no interest in tapping real world experience from the inside. It’s like academia, where the notion of knowing what you teach makes you a vulgar pariah. They are glorious. We are grunts. They are journalists. We are criminal defense lawyers.

I wish the Marshall Project success, because I seek a far better system that reflects respect for the Constitution and provides far greater efficacy in meeting the platitudes upon which our society’s dreams rest.  Anything that furthers the goal of a better, fairer, more honest system is worthy of support.

Yet, self-proclaimed saviors have come and gone before.  They start with a bang, then fade from memory.  Will the Marshall Project be different? Who knows?  But its pompous assumption that no one has been fighting the good fight before it, and that a cadre of journalists will be better suited to knowing what will fix the system than, say, people who actually know and suffer the system, doesn’t bode well.

Those of us who have been fighting for real for years will watch, if there is anything to see. It’s too bad that we lack the star power of a Bill Keller. Then again, it’s too bad that Bill Keller lacks our knowledge and experience, both in the trenches where real people’s lives are destroyed and in the digital realm where the battle for people’s hearts and minds will be fought.



12 thoughts on “The Marshall Project (Messiah Du Jour)

  1. Jack

    I heard about this, most unfortunately around 4:30am this morning, on NPR while driving back from the airport. They were interviewing Keller and he said basically in the interview with Renee Montaigne “his measure of success isn’t the number of scoops, awards, or stories they get, but how many people they can convince to continue funding them.” (That’s a paraphrase because it was far too early to commit the exact quote to mind). You might find some audio of it online in a couple of days – you probably won’t like it.

    It was a truly maddening interview. Keller was talking this morning as if he came up with something totally revolutionary and was doing some great new thing to change the criminal justice system. Hopefully his next “revolutionary idea” is realizing that there are hundreds of trench lawyers and real journalists out there pounding the pavement on this and embraces them. I worry they are going to cover the criminal justice system the same exact way all the other media outlets do with just a little extra focus.

    Hey – you never know – you just may get an e-mail from him asking about something useful.

    1. SHG Post author

      I don’t plan on checking my email too often. He’s “revolutionary.” I just do it every day. Without funding.

      1. John Barleycorn

        Everyday without funding can have its advantages though, no??

        I have a few thoughts but most likely of a length that might be problematic even with my usual sense of brevity.

        Don’t go martyr on us. There is still hope…or something like that. At least I like to think so.

  2. Chris Bradley

    I wonder if there will be any opportunity for writers like yourself to publish pieces w/ the Marshall Project. Bloggers, blawggers, freelancers, independent journalists, etc. That could make a difference.

    1. SHG Post author

      What makes you think that’s either what I (we) would be interested in doing, or that it would serve any useful purpose? While I can’t speak for anyone else, I’m not looking to ride Keller’s coattails, but rather that whatever the solutions the Marshall Project promotes, they not be wrong-headed, simplistic and counterproductive as is so often the case from the journalist’s perspective.

      1. Chris Bradley

        Perhaps you’d counter that by seeking/allowing the opinions of outside sources. Giving folks (like trench lawyers) the Marshall Project platform.

        1. SHG Post author

          Or perhaps it would be better to work with trench lawyers rather than against them, or in competition with them, so that their knowledge and experience can help journalists better understand the problems and why simple fixes aren’t always simple or fixes.

  3. Charlie

    Keller already thinks cancer patients are overselling their own agony. God forbid what he thinks when there are defendants who in many cases are actually culpable. “Damn their rights!”

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