Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Gang Tackling Joe Klein - Why It's Important (UPDATED; UPDATE II)

When I was a kid, we used to have this game called "Tackle the Man With the Ball". When pick-up football got boring, or there weren't enough of us around to form teams, we would settle for focusing on the really fun part - thus the name of the game. One kid would get the ball, and run around until tackled. Occasionally, as boisterous boys do, there would be a bit of a pile-on, which we called a gang tackle. The object of the gang tackle would occasionally cry foul, but since the game itself had few rules other than avoiding falling down, then tossing the ball until someone picked it up, it isn't like such behavior was out of bounds or unfair. It was, in fact, part of the charm of the game. Even the poor sap who lay on the bottom of a pile of five or six other boys usually had the satisfaction of being on the giving end of such a gang tackle at some point, so it all came out in the wash before our mothers called us home for supper.

Something of the same kind has been happening on the left side of our fair internets. Since Friday, the left wing of the tubes has been abuzz with activity aimed at one particular individual - Time magazine columnist Joe Klein. A summary is easy enough. Joe Klein printed a column in which he misstated the intention of a bill, the RESTORE Act, before Congress. Not only did he misstate the intention of the bill, he also misrepresented the process, including the non-interference of the Speaker of the House. In a column, Glenn Greenwald noted Klein's errors, referencing the relevant sections of the bill in question, to show that, in essence, Klein had no idea what he was talking about.

In a non-response response, Klein said that he got his information not from the bill, but from "sources", who in fact turned out to be Republican committee staffers. He had not consulted with Democratic committee staffers at all or the relevant bill. Greenwald, who has written copiously on this particular topic - the question of the abuse of and ignoring of FISA by the Bush Administration - and knows the relevant legislation quite well, refused to accept Klein's statement that he "might" have made an error. As Glenn pointed out, the relevant section of the bill is hardly technical, and says the exact opposite of what Klein claimed in the column in question.

Klein made the mistake of keeping the issue public by continuing to apologize, saying in fact he did consult Democratic staffers, but maybe they weren't clear, or he didn't understand them, or something. Greenwald simply noted this, and the fact that Klein refused to acknowledge the fundamental point - he was writing about an extremely important piece of legislation before Congress, without having read it, familiarized himself with the important part of it, and accepted a false, partisan interpretation as Gospel truth in order to bash Democrats in the House.

By yesterday, it had reached farcical levels, at least on Klein's part. He wrote what is perhaps the most striking sentence I have read by a major Washington-based journalist who claims to have an understanding not just of political process, but policy as well:
I have neither the time nor legal background to figure out who's right.

In other words, "I don't know what the hell I'm talking about."


Greenwald, like a terrier with a rag, or perhaps a rottweiler with a throat, is not letting this go, and is pushing hard to get answers not just as to how such a fact-free bit of non-journalism made it in to print, but to force an acknowledgment on the part of Klein that he was wrong across the board. Others, including Jane Hamsher, have been doing the same thing.

On the one hand, like the poor kid who ended up on the bottom of the "pig pile" as we used to call it when we played "Tackle the Man With the Ball", I am quite sure poor Klein feels all put upon. Yet, the gang tackle here is not picking on a hapless innocent, and the larger context is mightily important. We have one of the leading Washington journalists, who happens to write for one of the largest-circulation news magazines in the country, admitting, without claiming any responsibility, that he not only has not read the legislation upon which he is opining, but that he does not think he has the expertise to do so. Yet, when called on it, he simply refuses to admit any egregious error, and the magazine for whom he writes defends the original piece, and the author thereof. The entire episode is a microcosm of the corrosive nature of political journalism in our time (no pun intended). Klein himself is a laughable individual, posing on TV as some sagacious, informed, erudite fellow, when in fact he has time and again been shown to be nothing more than a stenographer for those in power, passing off his own biases as Gospel truth, and ridiculing his critics as ignorant boobs who know nothing of the reality of journalism.

This isn't really about Joe Klein. It is about an entire system of mindless, shoddy journalism that substitutes a focus on the inner machinations of who's ahead and who's behind for a serious understanding of the issues that we face. It is about the lack of any accountability at all for years of this kind of garbage being tossed our way, and the constant off-putting readers get when we demand some kind of accountability for the mess we find ourselves in. While it might be nice if Klein and perhaps his editor found themselves filing for unemployment, this isn't about Klein - he is a symptom of a much larger illness, sclerosis of political journalism; the pathways by which we get our information are clogged with garbage, to the point now where we are not even being given correct information, and when this is pointed out, it is we who are at fault, not the purveyors of falsehoods.

I do not feel particularly bad for Klein; this has been a long time coming, and his sins and errors are multiple. Those who are piling on right now are doing so because of years of pent-up frustration with an entire network and system of shoddy, fake journalism, and zero accountability. This isn't about Joe Klein, no matter how hard, I am sure, he will attempt to make it. This is about making sure our free press actually does some reporting, and has reporters who understand the issues upon which they write and occasionally opine. It is also about accountability. In the end Klein, his editors, and even the magazine itself, is responsible not to fellow journalists, or to stockholders in Time-Warner, but to the people. It's really that simple.

UPDATE: Glenn Greenwald reports Time editor Rick Stengel's non-correction correction to Klein's original column:
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.

What more can be said about this entire episode? This is a wonderful reiteration of the original flaw, made to sound as if it is the height of journalistic mea culpas and accountability. All it does it perpetuate the original error, of course, making the entire editorial staff of Time as culpable as Klein in this sordid episode.

It's really both sad and foul.

UPDATE II: For clarity's sake, the entire episode centers on Klein's assertion that the RESTORE Act extends to foreign communications between terror suspects the protection of a FISA warrant, which Klein said was "beyond dumb". The relevant portion of the bill, which can be found here at Glenn's blog, but also at Daily Kos, and Think Progress, reads as follows:


Sec. 105A. (a) Foreign to Foreign Communications-

(1) IN GENERAL - 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.(emphasis added)

In other words, the bill is clear and explicit in saying the exact opposite of the claims made by Klein. Klein's later confession that he doesn't understand the bill is made all the more farcical by the clarity of the bill's language.

What's more, editor Rick Stengel's claim that this is all a "he said, he said" controversy, open to interpretation, is clearly false in light of the clarity of the language. Since the relevant portion of the bill is publicly available, one wonders only at the audacity of the claim that this is a question open to interpretation, rather than the direct manipulation of a journalist by partisans.

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