The furor surrounding Joe Klein’s misguided column of a week ago continues, incredibly, given Klein’s bizarre insistence on digging the hole deeper instead of forthrightly acknowledging error(s) and moving on. But this is not just about a columnist’s mistakes and tone-deafness. This is a debacle for the publication and company that employs him, because Time itself has compounded the problem, demonstrating contempt for its audience.
The episode is also a testament to the power of the Net to surface traditional-media wrongdoing — and to hold to account the people who have (and, despite the rise of citizen media, still have) enormous influence over what people believe about key issues. It’s almost inconceivable that Klein and his employers would have even bothered to issue their half-baked corrections had this all occurred a decade ago or earlier.
To recap a bit:
Klein’s original 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.
The responses from the Web were swift and, for the most part, far better informed. In particular, Salon’s fierce blogger, Glenn Greenwald, and Wired News’ Ryan Singel in the site’s Threat Level blog — both of whom are employed by online journalism operations — thoroughly dissected Klein’s factual and logical mess. Jane Hamsher at FireDogLake was among many in the independent blogosphere to join the fray.
Klein dug a deeper hole with a series of follow-up and factually challenged Time blog postings, in one of which he admitted not having actually read the legislation in question. It took him days to admit actual error, but even then he — and Time, in a correction that was and remains half-hearted at best — never fully owned up to the serious failure in this case.
The Chicago Tribune, which published excerpts from Klein’s erroneous column, published a direct and honest correction. Time still refuses, which makes the magazine’s failures much worse than Klein’s.
Why? Because as Singel notes in “Time Edits Wiretapping Correction, Still Wrong,” as he explains why the “correction” is itself so misleading:
For Time to continue to allow people to believe that that’s possibly what this bill would do means after all the detailed criticism it has gotten is clear proof the original column is no longer a dangerous misunderstanding of a complex issue by a two-bit political columnist.
Instead, it’s now an institutional lie.
I don’t know if this story will have further legs. Given the utter unprofessionalism it betrays, it should. But even if it doesn’t, something important has occurred.
Not so many years ago, this institutional arrogance would have been the end of the story. Actually, it’s likely that there would have been no clarifications or corrections of any kind.
And, unhappily, when this is part of journalistic history millions of people will have read Klein’s original column in the magazine. A tiny proportion of that readership will ultimately have learned that a fundamental premise of his argument was based on falsehood.
But the fact that Time (and Klein) felt obliged to respond at all, however grudgingly and still incorrectly, is a direct result of the growing ability of new media to be heard. There’s little to celebrate in this debacle, but we can at least take some satisfaction from that.