Joe Klein is not a journalist

November 28, 2007 | By | 5 Replies More

He can’t be, based on his own statements. A journalist is a person who reports – who scrutinizes what the powerful say for omissions or falsehoods, who informs readers what’s really going on, who sifts through the spin and digs beneath the surface to get at the real truth.

But Joe Klein doesn’t do any of that. By his own admission, that kind of work is just too hard for him. Instead, he’s settled for a more modest goal: whenever a powerful or influential person says something which they wish the public to believe, Joe Klein will dutifully copy down that statement and communicate it to us. If two such people make conflicting statements, Joe Klein will not attempt to mediate between them or decide which one is right. He’ll present them side-by-side, neither presenting nor examining any evidence that might support one over the other. He will, however, opine that gosh, all this stuff sure is confusing, isn’t it? Who really has the time or the knowledge to decide between these contradictory statements? Certainly not Joe Klein.

This is definitely not what a journalist does. The most accurate word I can think of to describe this role is “stenographer”. So, if Joe Klein wishes to call himself a stenographer, he can be my guest.

A little context might be helpful here. Joe Klein is a columnist for Time magazine, and the latest outrage he’s provoked has to do with a column he wrote recently about the RESTORE Act. This is a Democratic bill currently being debated by Congress which is intended to rein in some of the more egregious lawbreaking of the Bush administration, in particular its claim that it has the unilateral power to spy on American citizens without a warrant or court review. (This is a felony under the FISA bill passed by Congress in 1978 – but Bush claims that he is the “unitary executive” who can’t be bound by petty things like laws when he’s doing what he says is necessary to protect us.)

In his November 21 column, Klein wrote this about the RESTORE Act:

Unfortunately, Speaker Nancy Pelosi… supported a Democratic bill that — Limbaugh is salivating — would require the surveillance of every foreign-terrorist target’s calls to be approved by the FISA court, an institution founded to protect the rights of U.S. citizens only. In the lethal shorthand of political advertising, it would give terrorists the same legal protections as Americans. That is well beyond stupid.

This sneering assertion was 100% false, and Klein would have known that if he’d read the bill before writing about it. Here’s what the proposed legislation actually says, in clear and unmistakable terms even for legal language:

Notwithstanding any other provision of this Act, a court order is not required for electronic surveillance directed at the acquisition of the contents of any communication between persons that are not known to be United States persons and are reasonably believed to be located outside the United States for the purpose of collecting foreign intelligence information, without respect to whether the communication passes through the United States or the surveillance device is located within the United States.

Having made this amateurish error, Klein then compounded it by getting hostile and defensive when he was called on it. In his first alleged “correction,” he wrote, “I may have made a mistake in my column this week about the FISA legislation passed by the House, although it’s difficult to tell for sure given the technical nature of the bill’s language and fierce disagreements between even moderate Republicans and Democrats on the Committee about what the bill actually does contain.”

But wait – if Klein admits he doesn’t understand the bill now, then where did he get the arrogance to make such confident pronouncements about its “well beyond stupid” contents? Generally, when you unleash criticism that harsh, you want to be extra sure you know what you’re talking about. And why do “fierce disagreements” between politicians matter in any way? Why not just read the text of the bill? If it’s too hard for Klein to understand, then I suggest that he find a line of work other than writing about politics. Would you pay a car mechanic who said it was “difficult to tell for sure” why your car wasn’t working, due to the “technical nature” of engine components?

This limp correction drew yet more fire from the blogosphere. To date, Klein’s last word on the matter is a blog post with the truly astonishing title of FISA: More Than You Want to Know, in which he concludes, “I have neither the time nor legal background to figure out who’s right”.

For the record, Mr. Klein, this is not “more than I want to know”. Klein is supposed to be a journalist. His job is supposed to be to inform the public. If he’s not qualified to do his job, or if he lacks interest in doing it, then he should immediately resign and hand the position over to someone who is qualified. A true journalist would not think, as Joe Klein apparently does, that the public can ever be too well informed.

Finally, in response to vociferous complaints, the editors of Time stepped in. Surely they’d want to repair this egregious error, wouldn’t they? Surely they’d want to defend their reputation and uphold some bare minimum of journalistic standards?

As it turns out… not so much.

In the original version of this story, Joe Klein wrote that the House Democratic version of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) would allow a court review of individual foreign surveillance targets. Republicans believe the bill can be interpreted that way, but Democrats don’t.

This breathtaking statement was the entirety of their response to this matter. They later posted a correction to the correction (“The bill does not explicitly say that. Republicans believe it can be interpreted that way, but Democrats don’t”). This is not an improvement.

This “correction” is a total abandonment of Time‘s journalistic responsibilities. It’s the ultimate example of the trend I noted last summer, in “The Illusion of Balance“. That trend is the tendency of a lazy, irresponsible media to assume it’s done its job as long as it presents “both sides” in he-said-she-said fashion, with no examination of the evidence necessary.

In reality, this is not how the media is supposed to do its job; it is an abdication of the media’s job. The media’s purpose is to keep the public informed, to be the gatekeepers between truth and falsehood. Presenting conflicting assertions without making any effort to decide between them actually works against that goal. It confuses and misinforms people; worse, it leaves them more poorly equipped to decide the truth of similar debates in the future, by fostering the myth that there is no objective truth of the matter and that every political debate can be reduced to an irresolvable conflict of opinion.

Time‘s behavior in this matter is a perfect illustration of everything that’s gone wrong with American media in the past several years. The media’s ignorant and irresponsible attitude that it’s not their job to decide who’s telling the truth is exactly how we became involved in the Iraq debacle in the first place, not to mention other catastrophic blunders both domestic and foreign. I think this is more than sufficient reason for people of intelligence and sense to boycott Time henceforth, and instead seek out alternative sources of news that have not forgotten the duties of a journalist.

(Hat tip to Glenn Greenwald, who’s been aggressively covering this story from the beginning.)

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Category: American Culture, Communication, Current Events, Law, Media, Politics

About the Author ()

I'm an author, skeptic and computer programmer living in New York City. I'm also an unapologetic atheist, and believe passionately that freethinkers deserve a much stronger voice in our culture than they've been given in the past. Since politicians and the mainstream media aren't willing to give us that, it falls to us to take our case directly to the public. Both on my own weblog, Daylight Atheism, and here on Dangerous Intersection, I hope to be able to spread the good news of freethought!

Comments (5)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Ebonmuse: Thank you for your aggressive and entirely appropriate scolding of Time and Klein. Pretty amazing how their work was so incredibly sloppy–actually it wasn't sloppy at all. Klein's initial position obviously consisted of RNC talking points. When called on it, he (and Time) awkwardly tried to back down, but only inch by inch, since a true correction would result in a all-too-visible mea culpa. As it turns out, their string of corrections and explanations was even more visible and more telling than just coming clean in one big clear announcement. Here's what Klein should have said: I was wrong. I was irresponsible. I was serving as a stenograper for the Republican hacks who fed me this crap. I an an irresponsible journalist. If I practiced medicine with the same care with which I practiced journalism, I would deserve to be stripped of my license. etc etc.

    Your story reminds me the time I was bringing a story to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. I had recently been fired by the state Attorney General (William Webster) because I refused to look the other way when his contributors violated Missouri law.

    One of my co-employees filed an ethics complaint against Webster for comparable behavior he witnessed. This was certainly newsworthy that an Assistant Attorney General filed an ethics complaint against the highest ranking law enforcement officer in the state. I broke this news to the newspaper reporter, who ran into problems with his editors. A conversation with the reporter revealed this: He advised the paper that a credible source (me) advised that an ethics complaint (a serious and detailed complaint) was filed against Webster. When the paper called Webster, Webster denied that any complaint had been filed against him. The ethics commission was, by law, required to conduct these proceedings in secrecy, so they couldn't clarify the dispute. So what did the Post-Dispatch print?

    Nothing.

    Why? From what the reporter told me, he was told that one party (me) said that the complaint had been filed and another party (Webster) said it hadn't been filed. Therefore (the Editors explained to the reporter), they couldn't determine the truth of my allegation so they couldn't print anything at all. Rather than printing both sides of the story, they printed nothing.

    I have to wonder how much of THIS sort of thing is happening in the national media. Excuse-making for not digging into a story. How many stories do we not hear about because the story is not "proven." Sometimes, then, a he-said she-said story should be printed. Let the public be the judge.

    I think that the problem with Klein's approach is that one side of the story (the side Klein took) could have easily been exploded had he bothered to do just a little homework (e.g., read the law). In these kinds of cases where a bunch of clearly unsubstantiated BS is put up against a rock solid explanation, as though they have equal weight, it is (as you argue) a disservice to the public to print them, side-by-side, in the form of he-said she-said. As though there is no way to resolve the issue when there WAS a way to resolve it.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Check out this comment by the New York World, which once published comments made by President Theodore Roosevelt followed by this disclaimer:

    To the best of the World’s knowledge and belief, each and all of these statements made by Mr. Roosevelt and quoted above are untrue, and Mr. Roosevelt must have known they were untrue when he made them.

    http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=1199

  3. Vemrion says:

    Klein is not the only worthless, idiotic hack writing for Time. I recently read an "article" by John Cloud that nearly made me choke it was so stupid. In fact, it may be The Stupidest Article Ever Written. Enjoy:

    http://weblog.timoregan.com/2007/11/stupidest-art

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Vemrion: I agree that any explanation founded on the repeated occurrence of what is considered to be "accidental sex" is intellectually suspect. Thanks for the link. It was, indeed, worth a visit.

  5. Ebonmuse says:

    I didn't think there was anything worse than he-said-she-said journalism, but I think you've provided a superb counterexample, Erich. Surely a responsible media organization would have at least looked into the story you told to see if they could find corroboration.

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