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On Klein's Errors, Time's Semi-Stonewall and the Net's Power

Time Cover 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.

11 Comments on “On Klein's Errors, Time's Semi-Stonewall and the Net's Power”

  1. #1 lambert strether
    on Nov 30th, 2007 at 2:01 pm

    “Joke Line”!

  2. #2 Seth Finkelstein
    on Nov 30th, 2007 at 8:54 pm

    Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

    Whoopie. I am less than thrilled. Especially given the “institutional arrogance” present as much (if not more so) in new media.

    Note, regarding the “growing ability of new media to be heard”, if you’re not part of the tiny, tiny, priesthood/A-list/elite/club, then YOU DON’T GET HEARD.

    The “we” you talk about is essentially media strivers. While that’s a valid group, it’s important not to confuse that rarified clique with anyone else. It’s you (Dan), not “You” (the audience).

    [In-joke for net.old-timers: Philip Elmer-DeWitt is still at Time]

  3. #3 Me_again
    on Dec 1st, 2007 at 9:12 am

    we can at least take some satisfaction from that.

    What? Satisfaction from a media that lies and fails too produce corrections?

    Dan Gillmor seems to assume that the state of media was always the same, that TIME in particular was always this sloppy, this unprofessional – but the media was NEVER as partisan and distorted as it is now. TIME has gone out-of-its way to present patently false information. Like Greenwald said – Time never tried to give a balanced view of the bill – even in correction it was “whatever” Republicans said it was – no questions ask.

    How can Klein or TIME say that Republicans say one thing and Dems say another after having represented ONLY the GOP one, only the representing the fraudulent side of things?

    Time shows the public why shield laws would be dangerous. Apparently, so called journalist can and do lie. Did Klein take money for a certain opinion and misrepresentation?

    Hell. Maybe it’s time to ask him!

  4. #4 Jon Garfunkel
    on Dec 1st, 2007 at 9:29 am

    re: “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.”

    Are you sure?
    Here’s what Seth was referring to: Time‘s cover story of July 3, 1995 was on Internet porn and its ready availability; the author was Philip Elmer-DeWitt, the magazine’s computer and technology writer. Just a few weeks before, the Exon/Coats “Community Decency Act” was attended to Senate bill 652, which would eventually be passed as part of the 1996 Telecom Act (the indency portions of which were later struck down. The section 230 “safe harbor” provision added by Cox/Wyden in conference probably had the most far-reaching impact of the CDA).

    So at the time cyberporn was a hot issue, and Time’s article did much to bring the debate into the news. But there were journalistic problems– the magazine relied on a study by a CMU undergrad, which hadn’t been fully peer-reviewed (dastard gatekeepers!); the study was to appear in the Georgetown Law Journal, which gave exclusive rights to Time to read it, but not to other scholars (dastard exclusivity arrangements!) Nonetheless, in 1995, Time was quite a pioneer in online journalism, beating even the NYT to the web, and it was posted online for all to see, and there was enough of an online community to vigorously contest the reporting (There’s no porn here! Ok, not as much as the study claims.)

    The magazine dutifully responded with a followup, Firestorm on the Computer Nets. I can’t find a “money quote” (so to say) but this line piqued my interest: “…quite a bit of detail has emerged in the past three weeks, much of it gathered by computer users on the Internet.”

    The first major change in the last twelve years is that the phrase “computer users on the Internet” has been simply replaced by “bloggers”; the second change is that topics other than those about computers can be public vetted. Whether one wants to be associated with “bloggers” (or “establishment Washington journalists” for that matter), shorthand is the lingua franca of journalism and bloggerdom.

    The irony here is how we live and die by ex post facto journalism (“text post facto” anyone?). In 2002, Clay Shirky wrote: “the internet is strongly edited, but the editorial judgment is applied at the edges, not the center, and it is applied after the fact, not in advance.” Klein is like any other blogger. And he wouldn’t be the first blogger to equivocate on his correction. (Shirky also wrote that media outlets “can’t imagine that filtering after the fact can be effective”) And, similarly, your humble Boston correspondents ably fill in the gaps to some of the citmedia posts, an often thankless job.

    Obviously, Time’s correction to the article should have been longer. It should have been hyperlinked to a page by Time editors pointing to all necessary pages. It should have linked to the “Swampland” blog posts. It should have linked to the major critiques (Greenwald). It should have linked to the different versions of the article.

    And here’s the real problem. Does stitching a blog onto a media outlet solve any institutional journalistic problems? Some, but not the big ones. not. We need to truly understand the core problems here and design a technology to truly help readers navigate information. With the “blog” format you merely have put forth the appearance of conversations. The publishers subconsciously recognized this bait-and-switch and ran with it.

    One last point to respond to Seth about A-Listers– clearly this issue was brought to the forefront by the highly influential Greenwald. Newspapers and magazines publish factual editors everyday, and not every single one of them invites the crucifixion of the author. Perhaps it happened in this case because the issue was important to most people. But note that the issue here wasn’t the law itself; it was that of moderate liberals (like Klein) having a blind eye towards civil liberties concerns.

  5. #5 Pete Bledsoe
    on Dec 1st, 2007 at 1:36 pm

    Seth said:

    Note, regarding the “growing ability of new media to be heard”, if you’re not part of the tiny, tiny, priesthood/A-list/elite/club, then YOU DON’T GET HEARD.

    There is a difference between having the “ability to be heard” and actually being heard — namely, the willingness of someone else to listen. The “ability to be heard” is not the promise of a podium nor an audience. If you have something to say, you can start a blog. If anyone finds it interesting, they will read it.

    In short, there’s a reason why Greenwald is an A-lister — he’s smart, informed, does great research, and writes carefully. I would even say meticulously.

    The point of this article is that “new media” are having an impact on old — and your example from a decade ago really has no relevance to that argument.

    Interesting quote from that old Time correction, though:

    As a rule, computer-wise citizens of cyberspace tend to be strong civil libertarians and First Amendment absolutists.

    Some things never change (thank God).

  6. #6 - links for 2007-12-02
    on Dec 1st, 2007 at 7:22 pm

    […] Center for Citizen Media: Blog » Blog Archive » On Klein’s Errors, Time’s Semi-Stonewall and t… “This is not just about a columnist’s mistakes. Time itself has compounded the problem, demonstrating contempt for its audience. It’s also a testament to the power of the Net to surface MSM wrongdoing.” (tags: journalism accuracy accountability ethics problems criticism credibility tidbits+fodder) […]

  7. #7 JohnofScribbleSheet
    on Dec 2nd, 2007 at 7:22 am

    Indeed. At least they issued a half basked apology. Though that is not really enough. It does show the power of New Media.

  8. #8 » Blog Archive » “A testament to the power of the Net to surface traditional-media wrongdoing”
    on Dec 2nd, 2007 at 5:01 pm

    […] Dan Gillmor on Joe Klein’s fiasco in Time.              Related Posts […]

  9. #9 Seth Finkelstein
    on Dec 4th, 2007 at 4:20 am

    “The “ability to be heard” is not the promise of a podium nor an audience”

    That’s the bait-and-switch-and-SNEER. Whenever it’s pointed out that in new media (just like old media) a few people shout from on-high and everyone else is down squeaking at the bottom, that snide dismissive attacking put-down is trotted out.

    One could just as well say that if someone’s writing is interesting, a publisher will buy it, and if you couldn’t find anyone in the entire publishing world to buy your writing, well, maybe you didn’t qualify as “smart, informed, does great research, and writes carefully”.

    The point is that “New Media” isn’t having an impact, in terms of being any different from “Old Media” – elites fight among themselves all the time, and it doesn’t matter at all to anyone else what label they have on them.

  10. #10 Pete Bledsoe
    on Dec 4th, 2007 at 9:53 pm


    Unfortunately, it appears that you have taken my comments as an attack. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m sure that what you have to say is compelling to you, and it could be that you have a dedicated audience who agree. I don’t know, but in any case I did not say that any of the qualities of “A-listers” don’t apply to you … I just said they apply to (at least one) A-lister.

    I would argue that your very own blog disproves your assertion that “‘New Media’ isn’t having an impact”, since by definition you are having an impact on the people who read you. Whether your audience is one or one thousand (or any other number you care to name), the net makes boutique media possible online in ways that would be impossible in the old world of print/broadcast media.

    I don’t particularly feel the need to reach an audience — I don’t feel that I have anything that important to say — but if you do, you have the opportunity to change the world. When you have put your stuff “out there”, and then complain that you’re not “getting heard”, and it’s just “elites fight[ing] among themselves”, well, who is sneering at whom?


  11. #11 We’re All Bloggers Now « The Opinion Mill
    on Dec 5th, 2007 at 5:43 am

    […] How much longer can Time, and their friends in the establishment press, continue to ignore this oozing journalistic […]