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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Joe Klein Steps In It (part 924)

This post is probably best directed at non blog-readers, because if you've been anywhere near a liberal blog in the last couple days you've probably heard the story. The short version goes like this:

1) Nationally syndicated Time magazine columnist Joe Klein writes a print column about the Democratic congress being "well beyond stupid" for coddling terrorists and giving them legal protections that should only be afforded Americans.

2) Liberal bloggers, led by the stalwart Glenn Greenwald, point out that Klein is factually wrong; the bill does no such thing.

3) Klein posts a non-apology on the Time magazine blog, pointing out that it's not his fault he got it wrong, he was just relying on what republicans on the hill told him, and why should anyone care anyway.

4) Aforementioned liberal bloggers highlight the abysmal journalistic behavior going on, and try to contact Time editors to issue a correction. Relevant editors respond with "fuck off."

Click "There's more..." for the slightly longer and maddeningly frustrating version.

It started with this key graph in Klein's column:
Unfortunately, Speaker Nancy Pelosi quashed the House Intelligence Committee's bipartisan effort and 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.
The online story was accompanied by this graphic:

Naturally, bloggers felt it material to point out that the law, in fact, only American citizens are protected under the law, not foreign terrorists. Klein claimed that the Democrats in the house were extending constitutional rights to foreign citizens (terrah-ists), which they simply did not do.

The larger meta issue that came out of this, however, is attitude of the more pernicious elements of the beltway press today. These are the same folks that brought us Iraq War II: The Obliterating, and they haven't shown any inclination to change, despite frequent public soul searching and promises to do better in the wake of the war.

Klein responded to the charge that he had factually misreported the text of the bill by playing dumb, saying that he wasn't a lawyer and couldn't judge the text of the bill himself. He sort of tries to issue an apology and correction, but it didn't quite do the trick:
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.
Democrats say that I was wrong to report that the bill includes a FISA court review of individual foreign terrorist targets who might communicate with U.S. persons, although it does include an annual “basket” review of procedures used by U.S. intelligence agencies to target foreign suspects. The Republican Committee staff disagrees and says my reporting is correct.

I have to side with the Democrats. I reported as fact a provision of the bill that seems to be disputable, to say the least. Clearly, I didn’t do sufficient vetting of the facts.
At least that's somewhat clear. So naturally there will be a correction in the next print edition, where the offending column ran in the first place? Nope.

After much prodding, Time's editors settled for this embarrassingly mealy-mouthed the online edition only:
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.
Atrios responded with the succinct wit that made him famous:
Democrats believe that Rick Stengel ( and Mickey Kaus have regular threesomes with a goat, while Republicans believe Mickey has a strictly monogamous relationship with his goat.
That summed up about 85% of the problem with modern journalism. It's all he-said/she-said (or for some republicans, he-said/he-said). Very little effort is ever expended to ascertain whether one side of a debate is simply, brazenly, lying. We saw it in 2000 with Bush's claims about his tax cuts. Paul Krugman has long held that any sensible person could have compared Bush's claims about his tax cuts with the undisputed numbers behind his plan, and known back then exactly what kind of president Bush would be.

We saw it ad nausea throughout 2004: Republicans say John Kerry will eat your children! Democrats disagree! The causes and circumstances of the phenomenon have been well explored, but never fully acknowledged by much of the profession. The unskeptical coverage of administration claims about Iraq was treated as an aberration by the beltway press establishment, when in fact it was SOP.

But back to our boy Klein. The editor for Klein's original column, Priscilla Painton, didn't take the criticism well. Jane Hamsher at FireDogLake called her up to discuss the column, and well...
I’ve spent all morning on the phone trying to figure out who the editor at Time Magazine was on Joe Klein’s FISA column (the one Klein has now written about five times, fully admitting he never read the original bill). I finally confirmed that the editor was Priscilla Painton, and called her and identified myself. I asked her what the editing process was, and how a piece with so many errors made it into print.

"That assumes that there are errors," she said. And hung up on me.
Unsurprisingly, this is reminiscent of an earlier dust-up...

Where does that leave us? Glenn's got the up to the hour updates, but sadly, about where you'd expect. We still have the token liberal at a major national newsweekly relying on republican staffers to feed him plainly false attack lines about the democrats, and when the beltway boys get caught, they circle the wagons and act like it's not a big deal.

This one incident in itself probably isn't such a big deal, although it is pretty absurd. The larger problem that spawned the huge reaction from the bloggers, however, is that it's part of a pattern, and is indicative of all the most corrosive elements of modern political journalism.

We're not asking for much, just do your jobs. Maybe with a little pride next time.