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Shameful 'Journalism' by Time Magazine's Joe Klein

One of the most amazing episodes in modern American journalism has emerged from a flagrantly inaccurate and misguided Time magazine column by Joe Klein. He’s a political writer whose work in this case may become Exhibit A for what’s wrong with the craft today.

Klein’s column attacked congressional Democrats’ effort to pass electronic surveillance legislation that would restrain the Bush administration’s wish for essentially no restraints or oversight whatever. In his piece, Klein got some vital facts dead wrong, giving a totally misleading message to his readers.

Needless to say, bloggers and others who care about truth and the Constitution jumped on this outrageous stuff. No one did a better job than Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, who pointed out the misstatements in great detail.

Klein, obviously responding to Greenwald (though never saying so), defended himself without actually dealing with the actual facts — and even more amazingly asserted that telecom companies should do whatever the government orders them to do, even if it’s completely illegal. Bloggers continued to attack both the original piece and his absurd justifications.

Then Klein sort of, kind of admitted error in a follow-up — though he made obvious something even more amazing: He hasn’t read the legislation he attacks. Meanwhile, neither Klein nor Time has put corrections into the original, flagrantly inaccurate column, which also ran in the print edition.

What makes all this so bad is Time’s reach and influence. Millions of people probably read the original. Very, very few will know, even now, that fundamental premises were false.

Why Time employs Klein is a mystery to me, though I suppose it shouldn’t be. He’s a member of the Washington journalistic establishment, where forgetting reality is all too common. As Wired News’ Ryan Singel noted, Klein’s record includes publicly lying about his anonymous authorship of the novel Primary Colors (one of the best books of fiction about politics in recent memory, incidentally). Singel then adds, and I agree:

But Time ought to stop Klein from writing about any substantive topic, especially FISA.

Because when it comes to these topics, Klein is well beyond stupid. He’s dangerous.

(Corrected: I got Ryan Singel’s affiliation wrong the first time; apologies.)

40 Comments on “Shameful 'Journalism' by Time Magazine's Joe Klein”

  1. #1 Brian Robinson
    on Nov 26th, 2007 at 11:09 am

    Dan,

    I agree with you about Joe Klein and his tendency to spout off without much thought. He’s written some good stuff over the years but, lately, I think his notoriety has caught up with him.

    But I wish you would stop tainting journalism and journalists overall with phrases that generalize one person’s wrong as being part of an overall trend.

    You are a journalist yourself (you still are, aren’t you?) so you know the business is populated with many, many people who are trying to do a good job and to be as accurate and as truthful as possible. There are also many, many people outside of the “Washington journalistic establishment”.

    I understand that some bloggers and “alternative media” types like to slag off on the “MSM” every chance they get. By association they are saying that regular journalism sucks and we don’t. But you know better than most of them.

    I don’t count Salon as a blog, by the way. It is now part of the mainstream media, albeit online only.

  2. #2 Paul Dirks
    on Nov 26th, 2007 at 11:13 am

    While Joe is and remains a piece of work, I actually beleive he is unique among “centrists”. He seems to have some unresolved issues dating back to the sixties concerning masculinity and the fact that the war opponents seemed to have seriously more fun.

    Reading his discussion about Merle Haggard linked below brings this to the fore:

    http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1670184,00.html

    These unresolved issues appear to be deeply affecting his current reporting and have the unfortunate effect of masking his ability to understand opponents to the current war.

  3. #3 chris feldmann
    on Nov 26th, 2007 at 1:12 pm

    Ryan SIngel was writing for Wired, not Salon.

    Brian, Glenn’s blog was a standard blogspot.com blog for some time before he was brought under the aegis of Salon and his format, content, and style have not substantially changed under Salon’s sponsorship. His column is still legitimately described as a “blog,” it seems to me.

  4. #4 Michael Kentoff
    on Nov 26th, 2007 at 2:03 pm

    I’m not a journalist. I understand Brian Robinson’s warning against applying characterizations with a broad brush. I also, as a non-journalist, understand that Joe Klein’s work isn’t necessarily representative of the “craft” of journalism today. That said, where are the “many, many people . . . trying to do a good job and be as accurate and as truthful as possible” when the Administration was and continues to be permitted to use much of the press as a great big publicist? Where were they in 2002? Where are they now?

    I don’t doubt Robinson’s contention that such people exist and in decent numbers, but when the mainstream press is where most Americans receive their news and the same mainstream press refuses to speak truth to power on a daily basis, what are we to make of American journalism as a whole?

    It’s not a matter of “regular journalism sucks and [alternative media practictioners] don’t,” but that someone with the ear of the people has to challenge unfettered expressions of power. Americans count on the press to hold elected officials accountable; because that hasn’t happened, the press has not fulfilled its primary purpose. In true democracies, the press isn’t simply a conduit for propaganda. In our country — at critical times — it tends to be exactly that.

  5. #5 David
    on Nov 26th, 2007 at 2:36 pm

    “Meanwhile, neither Klein Time has put corrections into the original, flagrantly inaccurate column, which also ran in the print edition.”

    I think you mean “Meanwhile, neither Klein *nor* Time…”
    That sentence completely confused me for a moment. I’d like to share your (great) piece with others, but maybe you can fix that nit first. Thanks!

  6. #6 Matt Sandwich
    on Nov 26th, 2007 at 2:45 pm

    I think Mr. Robinson’s comment manages to highlight one of the reasons bloggers are so worked up about this issue: Joe Klein’s column was published in an international news magazine and on their website. To an audience of millions, and perhaps tens of millions. And it consists largely of an attack on a political party based on a falsehood. This does indeed taint “journalism and journalists overall” by the fact that it was written, edited, and published in several venues in spite of its inaccuracy, thereby suggesting that this is what passes for acceptable journalism at one of the best-known news magazines in this hemisphere. And more and more frequently, it is.

    While there are undoubtedly many skilled and passionate journalists working today (and I say that as an angry blogger), the blase attitude expressed in your message ignores the problems at hand: not only the continuing dissemination of demonstrably false information through America’s largest news outlets, but the indifference with which it is too often met from the journalistic community.

  7. #7 Hamilton Nolan
    on Nov 26th, 2007 at 3:07 pm

    If I’m not mistaken Ryan Singel works for Wired, not Salon. Flagrantly inaccurate! Not as bad as Joe Klein, I’m just kidding.

  8. #8 SteveInWC
    on Nov 26th, 2007 at 3:40 pm

    In this case, Dan and the bloggers and “alternative media” are right. Klein’s column IS representative of the same traditional media bandwagon that helped get us into the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq. It also helped Bush get re-elected in 2004, by largely sticking to lame “he said, she said” coverage of the lies and misleading statements that came out of Bush’s campaign every day.

  9. #9 vercingetorix
    on Nov 26th, 2007 at 3:52 pm

    Salon may not be a blog, but Glenn Greenwald does indeed have a blog there. And his point is that this is not an isolated case involving only Joe Klein, but is in fact an exemplar of a much wider and more alarming trend in mainstream journalism.

    Greenwald is a very nuanced writer and his blog has never been one to “slag on the MSM” in some crude, general fashion. Maybe less capable bloggers resort to shoddy arguments of that style, but then they probably aren’t worth reading, anyway.

  10. #10 Drasties Blog
    on Nov 26th, 2007 at 4:19 pm

    [...] and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University Law School — has picked up on the Klein/Time story, labeling Klein’s behavior “Shameful ‘Journalism’,” and contending [...]

  11. #11 Dave Mastio
    on Nov 26th, 2007 at 4:43 pm

    No doubt you’re right about Klein’s mistakes and the need for somebody to hold him accountable. The amount of dodging that journalists will go through to avoid dealing with factual errors is often disheartening.

    It is funny to see Greenwald be the champion of accountability for journalists. Google “glenn greenwald” and “brazil” and you’ll find the entertaining story of how Greenwald reacts when he gets called on errors.

    Funny how journalists and bloggers have the same MO when they are under attack. Maybe it is the simple fact that behind the labels, Greenwald and Klein are both just people.

  12. #12 Kitt
    on Nov 26th, 2007 at 4:57 pm

    “I don’t count Salon as a blog, by the way. It is now part of the mainstream media, albeit online only.”

    Whatever one might consider Salon to be, Glenn Greenwald’s corner of Salon is completely independent of any interference, editing or any over sight whatsoever from anyone at Salon. Glenn Greenwald’s “Unclaimed Territory” blog was no different in form and freedom than what the forum and freedom he writes with now on Salon. I would certainly consider Glenn Greenwald’s blog on Salon as, indeed, a blog.

  13. #13 Pericles
    on Nov 26th, 2007 at 7:35 pm

    Brian,

    The trend Klein is part of isn’t that he gets stuff wrong. We all get stuff wrong. But on a blog you get stuff wrong, your readers point it out, you go do some research, and then you say, “Crap! I got that wrong. I’m so embarrassed. Here’s the real information.”

    That’s what Klein’s not doing. He’s got this ego thing going where he’s on a different level than bloggers. So even when a high-profile blogger like Greenwald points out that he’s wrong, he can’t deign to mention Glenn by name or link to the criticisms he’s responding to or even really respond to them.

    That’s an attitude that isn’t unique to Joe Klein.

  14. #14 Commenter to Joe Klein: “Grow up. Get a clue. Get a grip. Get some help.” « Later On
    on Nov 26th, 2007 at 8:47 pm

    [...] and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University Law School — has picked up on the Klein/Time story, labeling Klein’s behavior “Shameful ‘Journalism’,” and contending [...]

  15. #15 Leisureguy
    on Nov 26th, 2007 at 8:55 pm

    Lots of talk about Joe Klein, no talk at all about the editor who cleared the article to print. Journalists get their name attached to what they write, and nowadays even the researchers who help are identified, but editors, secure in their anonymity, stay back in the shadows, though it is THEY who are the responsible gatekeepers. When dreck like Klein’s get through to publication the fault is only partly the writer’s—the editor, who is charged with ensuring that the story is worthy of print, also bears considerable responsibility. Many of the failures of modern journalism are failures of the editors, not just the journalists. And until stories are tagged with the name of the editor responsible, we’ll never know those who are doing a good job and those who fail utterly.

  16. #16 Peter Principle
    on Nov 26th, 2007 at 10:12 pm

    Granted, Klein has disgraced himself (again). And granted, helping the Republican Party trash the 4th Amendment, wittingly or unwittingly, is no small thing. But “one of the most amazing episodes in modern American journalism”? Isn’t that a bit of overkill?

    I would have thought Judy Miller’s star role in helping the Bush administration build a phony case for WMDs in Iraq, or Bob Novak’s role in outing a covert CIA operative, or the media’s collectively shameful coverage of the Swiftboating of John Kerry, or the very existence of Fox News would all be more plausible candidates for the “most amazing” label.

    Compared to those abuses, Klein looks pretty, well, small.

  17. #17 The Tale of the Pundit Who Was Too Important to Bother with Journalism « The Opinion Mill
    on Nov 27th, 2007 at 5:21 am

    [...] to cover his butt while implying that the objections were too trivial to warrant serious attention drew him deeper into the quicksand. Klein’s remark that he has “neither the time nor legal background to figure out [...]

  18. #18 ScribbleSheet Blog
    on Nov 27th, 2007 at 5:47 am

    [...] Thanks to Dan Gillmor for the lead [...]

  19. #19 JohnofScribbleSheet
    on Nov 27th, 2007 at 5:51 am

    Joe Klein gives journalists a very bad name. I am not that familiar with his work but it has seriously hurt Time’s reputation. I am surprised he could get away with this. But I think this highlights a fact we have to admit….

    How many of us actually read source documents? Police statements, legislation, speeches etc. Most commenters rely on second hand information. This sort of thing was inevitable.

  20. #20 nitpicker
    on Nov 27th, 2007 at 6:35 am

    I think the problem is deeper here than Klein’s denial about getting stuff wrong. The worst thing is that he is defending his statements by saying the law is “difficult” to understand and he has “neither the time nor legal background to figure out who’s right…” He adds that he’s spent the “past few days nosing around” and has “reached no conclusions.”

    Yes, these are stupid statements from someone who already published a column about the “difficult” topic in some of the nation’s premiere opinion space, but it’s even more telling that Klein actually thinks he’s defending himself by writing such things. Even my 13-year-old son knows not to defend himself from questions about a bad test grade by saying the test was hard and he didn’t really study anyway.

  21. #21 Rick Tillery
    on Nov 27th, 2007 at 7:17 am

    Guys,

    As a reporter and anchor I gotta stand up for us in the so-called MSM. In my view Joe Klein is not a journalist but a columnist along the lines of Molly Ivans or Cal Thomas… I see him as offering opinions only, not substantive fact. He may want to try and pass himself off as that, but those of us in the journalist community see right through him.

    Unfortunately Joe does a raise a point. Due to time and budgetary constraints we usually don’t have more than one day to do a story. It sucks, and we don’t like it. But that’s what we have to live with for now. Most of us are trying to go back to having more time to put together comprehensive stories that have more depth. On the other hand, TIME sure does have a heck of a lot of time (and money) and usually does not demand “one day turns” on stories or columns so I kinda call Joe bogus on that excuse…

  22. #22 Phawker » Blog Archive » WHY BEING TIME’S ‘PERSON OF THE YEAR’ MAKES YOU A HERO TO MOST BUT DON’T MEAN SHIT TO ME
    on Nov 27th, 2007 at 8:01 am

    [...] and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University Law School — has picked up on the Klein/Time story, labeling Klein’s behavior “Shameful ‘Journalism’,” and contending [...]

  23. #23 Brian Robinson
    on Nov 27th, 2007 at 8:33 am

    An interesting set of comments. I don’t want to prolong this too much, but….

    – If someone has a blog hosted by Salon, and appears regularly on the site, does he write for himself or for Salon? If someone writes a regular column for the New York Times, is he/she an independent who just happens to publish in the NYT, or is he/she a NYT columnist? And if they screw up, do they or the MSM outlet get the blame?

    – Many of the comments here seem to refer to the MSM as political reporting only. There’s many journalists who report in other beats who get tainted with the broad brush of MSM when Dan and others “slag off” on journalism at large. Plus, there are some very good pro political reporters, both on the national stage and at the local level.

    – If I remember rightly, the emerging blogosphere (hate that term) didn’t do so well in calling the lead up to the Iraq War correctly, either. In fact, when writers in the MSM did question the “facts” that Bush and others were putting forward (and there were some who did) they quickly got shot down by the right wing blogs, even to the point of being called treasonous. Where was the blogosphere’s support of them?

    – There are some very good bloggers out there, and semi blogs/publications ( think Josh Marshall’s outfit is probably the best example of this). There are also a lot of crappy blogs. Ditto for professional journalists. I just want the journos to get their fair shakes. I know the problems that the pro craft has, but it has also has some very good points.

    – I also, by the way, dispute the commonly held belief that blogs are self-healing. Some are open that way but many are not. It’s a fallacy that the ‘sphere likes to primp itself with.

    Anyway, my two cents.

  24. #24 sy
    on Nov 27th, 2007 at 10:36 am

    Brian Robinson Says:

    “… I wish you would stop tainting journalism and journalists overall with phrases that generalize one person’s wrong as being part of an overall trend.

    You are a journalist yourself (you still are, aren’t you?) so you know the business is populated with many, many people who are trying to do a good job and to be as accurate and as truthful as possible. …”

    ‘Effing apologist.

    When the industry begins to self-police again so that “journalists overall” appreciate that there is a consequence to shoddy journalism, not just from the public but their peers, then, perhaps, the cancer will not be preceived as having metastized to the overall industry.

  25. #25 Ohg Rea Tone
    on Nov 27th, 2007 at 10:36 am

    Joe Klein has reached the level of celebrity. His columns in Time are but fodder for his travels around the Talking Head studios of modern cable and satellite communications.
    Ohg.
    http://thefiresidepost.com/2007/11/25/media-hosts-fail-as-celebrities/

  26. #26 Pop + Politics : Blog Archive : Time's patsy Klein
    on Nov 27th, 2007 at 2:30 pm

    [...] at all cost. A column he wrote last week has been dissected by Glen Greenwald at Salon and many others and shown to be—in addition to completely muddled—shot through with planted misinterpretations [...]

  27. #27 Dan Gillmor
    on Nov 27th, 2007 at 3:42 pm

    Brian, contrary to what some folks here have said, I do believe that the overwhelming majority of journalists try to get things right, and by and large do a good job.

    Journalists are incredibly quick to tar entire professions with the sins of a few, in my experience — not directly, in most cases, but by inference. When the sins are journalistic, suddenly we (not unfairly) want people to be more nuanced in their response.

    The big difficulty in cases like this is that there remains an overwhelmingly influential group of traditional media people who have super-megaphones. Klein, by virtue of his platform (Time), is one of them. When someone in that position makes such mistakes, and corrects (some of) them so begrudgingly — and when the magazine still hasn’t bothered to correct the original even on its website, for God’s sake — it’s more serious.

  28. #28 Graham Shevlin
    on Nov 27th, 2007 at 4:47 pm

    When Joe Klein can claim (seemingly with a straight face) that despite several days of research, he cannot reach any conclusions, the comment tells us all we need to know about the value that he attaches to research and fact-checking.
    It also tells us all we need to know about the respect that Time’s editorial leadership has for truth-telling.
    The sad thing about this whole episode is how few other journalists and mainstream media outlets have commented about the shoddy work that is being published and pathetically defended in Time. How difficult can it be for journalists to be able to understand and articulate the reality that this sort of writing gives journalism a bad name?

  29. #29 Brian Robinson
    on Nov 27th, 2007 at 4:50 pm

    Here’s my last post to this subject:

    Dan, I appreciate what you said and I agree. I don’t like any tarring of a whole group of people because of the sins of a few, and that includes journalists doing it. And you are right that, because Klein is who he is and who he writes for, he should be held to a greater account.

    But then what about the online community? Where does someone like Matt Drudge fall there? Surely he has as big, if not bigger, megaphone and rep? And yet, again, I see him being lauded in an article with the honorific “the person who broke the Monica Lewinsky story” without any reference to the mountains of gossip, innuendo and outright falsities he’s trammeled over the years.

    So, then, all bloggers are Drudges in waiting (i.e. he being indicative of the craft of blogging?)

    The only point I wanted to make in all of this is that Klein is not indicative of anything, other than what he is. There’s a whole spectrum of things journalistic — good, bad and so-so — that have nothing to do with him. And the same, by the way, goes for blogging.

    ‘Nuff said. I’ll be interested to see what your new job turns up, by the way. Sounds intriguing.

  30. #30 Wanderer
    on Nov 27th, 2007 at 5:11 pm

    To be sure, Joe Klein’s actions are contemptible. However, does Time really have any influence on the American public. Is this 1954?

    Joe Klein and Time Magazine are like the 20th Century LTD competing in a world of cars and airplanes.

  31. #31 Ian
    on Nov 27th, 2007 at 5:24 pm

    After subscribing loyally to TIME for more than 25 years, I finally had enough with the blowhard Krauthammer [spelling no doubt incorrect but ask me if I care) and the Coulter cover. I cancelled. This Klein debacle only confirms the new low to which they have fallen.

  32. #32 amberglow
    on Nov 27th, 2007 at 7:07 pm

    Isn’t this instance exactly like the Judy Miller and other horrible stuff tho? Just not about war this time but about our privacy rights.

    They both (many do) rely on “tips” from partisans to write their stuff–they don’t factcheck nor even bother to read the actual legislation or historical evidence, nor do they contact people who might actually know the truth–unless it’s to present it as a “debate” where “one side says… but the other side says…” which raises the lies and spin to the same level as the truth and portrays the entire issue as a political fight without telling readers what the actual truth is. Klein passed on GOP spin and talking points based on lies about an important bill–which he hadn’t read at all. He slimed and lied about all Democrats based on those GOP lies, and misrepresented the legislation entirely, while also reinforcing dictatorial powers for the presidency (that the executive could give “direct orders” to private companies that needed to be followed no matterwhat). It was appalling on every level.

  33. #33 Jon Garfunkel
    on Nov 27th, 2007 at 10:15 pm

    Brian–

    I hear ya. You’re seeking a larger truth here. What suggests quality? What suggests hackery? Dan’s been making a point for years now that tradition and audience (the historical measures of the press) shouldn’t alone be confused for quality. But you have a good sense to express that being a blogger doesn’t automatically suggest quality either.

    I’d say that guys like Marshall and Greenwald have a bit of mojo that’s fairly unique– though they probably owe as much as their prowess to journalistic tradition as they do to blogging. BUT– I’ll give oodles of credit to Greenwald the Blogger for stepping up and crunching Klein here.

    Those looking to compare the wattage of Klein v. Greenwald in the blogosphere should view this chart.

  34. #34 Kitt
    on Nov 28th, 2007 at 5:54 am

    Brian Robinson Says:
    November 27th, 2007 at 8:33 am

    An interesting set of comments. I don’t want to prolong this too much, but….

    – If someone has a blog hosted by Salon, and appears regularly on the site, does he write for himself or for Salon? If someone writes a regular column for the New York Times, is he/she an independent who just happens to publish in the NYT, or is he/she a NYT columnist? And if they screw up, do they or the MSM outlet get the blame?

    Glenn Greenwald has no Priscilla Painton (Joe Klein’s editor) editing him at Salon. So there would be no one to speak on Glenn’s behalf with surly remarks like, “That’s assuming there were errors”.

    Glenn Greenwald has no Manging Editor such as Rick Stengel of Time over at Salon who would or could back up Greenwald’s blog column with airheaded BS such as Stengel wrote in response to a thousand letters of complaint:

    “Thank you for your email, I appreciate your comments.

    TIME Columnist Joe Klein made a reporting error, which he swiftly addressed in his blog postings on TIME.com. In addition, TIME will run a correction in his column in this week’s issue of the magazine.

    Thank you very much,

    Richard Stengel

    Managing Editor

    TIME”

  35. #35 Neil
    on Nov 28th, 2007 at 4:04 pm

    “It is funny to see Greenwald be the champion of accountability for journalists. Google “glenn greenwald” and “brazil” and you’ll find the entertaining story of how Greenwald reacts when he gets called on errors.”

    Dave, I googled this up and found an excellent piece by Greenwald in which he cheerfully admitted that he is gay; something, apparently, that he has never tried to hide, unlike Matt Drudge and other right-wing closeted gay media icons. Was this your example of how Greenwald was no different from a hack like Klein in responding to critics? If so, that was a pathetically lame attempt at swiftboating, and a classic Rovian MO.

  36. #36 shep
    on Nov 29th, 2007 at 1:49 pm

    “But then what about the online community? Where does someone like Matt Drudge fall there? Surely he has as big, if not bigger, megaphone and rep? And yet, again, I see him being lauded in an article with the honorific “the person who broke the Monica Lewinsky story” without any reference to the mountains of gossip, innuendo and outright falsities he’s trammeled over the years.”

    Much of which was picked-up and promulgated as “news” by mainstream “journalists”.

    Seriously, anyone who doesn’t understand that: 1) pro-establishment bias is a feature not a bug of the corporate press and 2) the post-modern journalistic “ethic” of “unbiased” reporting where the statements of the mendacious or the insane are given the exact same weight as the honest or the rational has brought this country to its knees, has no business commenting on either journalism or politics.

  37. #37 Drasties Blog
    on Nov 30th, 2007 at 3:37 am

    [...] it on as fact, and their editors and media outlets defend them. As the Center for Citizen Media put it, this Time/Klein scandal is Exhibit A to what has happened to the political process of the United [...]

  38. #38 TurnThePage:Obama08
    on Nov 30th, 2007 at 11:40 am

    It was Bill Clinton that turned Joe Klein. Before that, he was doing Woody Guthrie biographies.

  39. #39 labradog
    on Dec 5th, 2007 at 3:54 pm

    Joe Klein, Judith Miller, Kit Seeley, Ceci Connelly – Joe ain’t no outlier in journalistic ethics at the star level. Maybe an “out liar”.

    And he got Merle Haggard all wrong, too. Merle has said in interviews that “Okie from Muskogee” was to him a gag record, and like a lot of musicians, most of his band were pot smokers at the time he put out that song.

  40. #40 Klein Unmasked | The Ruth Group
    on Feb 3rd, 2009 at 10:13 pm

    [...] Dan Gilmore at CitMedia.org [...]