Classy! Former NY Times Editor Bill Keller Lectures Cancer Patient She Should Be 'Going Gently' Like They Do In Britain

Just how big a jerk is former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller? Enough of a jerk that he’d write a column scolding a cancer patient that his father-in-law had more class when he died with dignity in Britain, as opposed to her fighting away, in real life and on Twitter, with “the frantic medical trench warfare that often makes an expensive misery of death in America.”

He pulled himself into this unseemly fight after his wife Emma Gilbey Keller attacked cancer patient Lisa Bonchek Adams in a column in the left-wing British newspaper The Guardian.

In the Times, Bill Keller suggested that it was time for Adams to accept the inevitable, since “the cancer that had colonized her lymph nodes, liver, lungs and bones had established a beachhead in her spine.” In Britain, he writes, patients have “the option” of saving the socialists some money by being unplugged from everything:

In October 2012 I wrote about my father-in-law’s death from cancer 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. 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.

Among doctors here, there is a growing appreciation of palliative care that favors the quality of the remaining life rather than endless “heroic measures” that may or may not prolong life but assure the final days are clamorous, tense and painful. (And they often leave survivors bankrupt.) What Britain and other countries know, and my country is learning, is that every cancer need not be Verdun, a war of attrition waged regardless of the cost or the casualties. It seemed to me, and still does, that there is something enviable about going gently.

Keller concluded by quoting Steven Goodman,  dean at Stanford's medical school, who said the cancer patient's blog "shouldn't be unduly praised. Equal praise is due to those who accept an inevitable fate with grace and courage." As opposed to graceless cowards like Adams? Tone-deaf Keller was shocked this would make a reader furious.

Welcome to the spirit of Obamacare. Show some "dignity" and die, already.


Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi reported this story Tuesday, leading with the obvious: "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." First came Mrs. Keller (the second Mrs. Keller):

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?”

The Guardian then removed the column from its website, citing the ethical violation that Mrs. Keller had quoted from Twitter direct messages from Adams without her consent.

Farhi noted the blowback at Bill:

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."

PS: This story was buried on page 6 of Style today, across from the funnies. Farhi had a front-page story for Style, too -- on Gabe Sherman's Ailes-trashing doorstop of a book, starting with how young Roger and his brother Robert Jr. were beaten by their father until they stopped crying.

PPS: The Times public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote up the double-Keller attack.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis