Former NYT editor Bill Keller and his wife under fire for commentary on cancer patient

January 13

Lesson No. 1: Publicly questioning the motives and intentions of a woman who is seriously ill with cancer can land you in a heap of controversy.

Writer Emma Gilbey Keller and her husband, former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller, seem to have found this out over the past few days. In a successive pair of columns in different publications, the Kellers opined about the prodigious tweets of a woman named Lisa Bonchek Adams, a Stage IV breast cancer patient in New York — and both reaped a whirlwind of outrage in the process.

For months, Adams, a mother of three, has been writing about her illness in 140-character bursts — tens of thousands of tweets detailing her treatment, condition and thoughts about an illness that has spread throughout her body. Her Twitter feed, followed by more than 10,000 people, is a painful chronicle of her decline, as well as a hopeful journal of optimism in the face of advancing darkness.

The Kellers acknowledged all of that. But they went further, too.

In a column in Britain’s the Guardian headlined “Forget funeral selfies. What are the ethics of tweeting a terminal illness?,” Emma Keller questioned Adams’s copious self-disclosure and Keller’s own voyeuristic fascination with it last Wednesday: “Should there be boundaries in this kind of experience?” she wrote. “Is there such a thing as TMI? Are her tweets a grim equivalent of deathbed selfies, one step further than funeral selfies? Why am I so obsessed?”


Former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller attends the NLGJA’s Annual New York benefit in 2008. (Scott Gries/Getty Images)

The reaction was swift — and angry. Critical comments poured into the Guardian’s Web site (“Lisa Adams is obviously hurting, but she’s not hurting anyone else. Leave her alone,” wrote one). By Friday, Keller had taken to Twitter to defend herself against those who took offense. “It has been an overwhelming experience to be so misread to say the least!” she tweeted at one point.

But what had been a mere lively row turned darker on Monday when Keller’s column disappeared from the Guardian’s Web site.

A note posted in place of the column said the newspaper had judged it “inconsistent” with its “editorial code.” A second notice soon replaced it. “This post has been removed pending investigation,” it said.

A Guardian spokesman declined to comment on the nature of the paper’s investigation. He also said Keller was not available.

The issue, it appears, is that Keller quoted an exchange of direct messages with Adams without Adams’s knowledge or permission, a violation of journalism ethics. Keller acknowledged as much in an update to the original article: “Given her health, I could have given [Adams] advance warning about the article and should have told her that I planned to quote from our conversations. I regret not doing so.”

Adams had her own take on Emma Keller’s work, tweeting to her Monday afternoon: “Many inaccuracies. I’m quite perplexed and concerned. Misses everything I’m trying to do. Stunned. Saddened.”

Undaunted by the pushback against his wife, Bill Keller weighed in with his thoughts on Adams in his Sunday New York Times column. Keller used Adams’s case to compare differing approaches to cancer treatment, contrasting her care at New York’s Sloan-Kettering Hospital to that of his father-in-law, who died of cancer in 2012 in a British hospital.

“There, more routinely than in the United States, patients are offered the option of being unplugged from everything except pain killers and allowed to slip peacefully from life,” he wrote. “His death seemed to me a humane and honorable alternative to the frantic medical trench warfare that often makes an expensive misery of death in America.”

He quoted a dean at Stanford’s medical school, Steven Goodman, who said Adams’s blog “shouldn’t be unduly praised. Equal praise is due to those who accept an inevitable fate with grace and courage.”

The column brought some complimentary comment on the Times Web site, but its own wave of rebuke as well.

Among the outraged on Twitter, New Yorker writer Susan Orlean tweeted: “I am appalled on every level by Bill Keller’s oped piece about @adamslisa. Astonishing.”

Adams herself offered this: “The main thing is that I am alive. Do not write me off and make statements about how my life ends TIL IT DOES, SIR.”

In statements to the Times’ public editor, Bill Keller defended his column and his wife’s.

“I tried to be clear in the column that I respect Lisa Adams’ choices, and I meant it,” he said. “I wish every cancer victim could have those options — to fight with all the resources of medicine, or not. . . . 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,” Keller said. “But I’ve heard from readers who understood the point and found it worth grappling with.”

He also e-mailed a brief comment for this story as well: “I said my piece to our public editor, and don’t feel like repeating myself. The most perverse notion — of many — is that Emma, who has had her own double mastectomy, is somehow insensitive to cancer victims.”

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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