The Klein/Time Controversy

Ken AshfordRight Wing and Inept MediaLeave a Comment

In a nutshell: Joe Klein printed something in Time about the FISA bill that was clearly objectively wrong.  Rather than read the bill and report what it actually said, he transcribed what a Republican told him it says.  Klein originally wrote:

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.

Got that?  Klein is reporting that, under the proposed bill, surveillance of suspected foreign terrorist’s calls requires an order from the FISA court. 

But the proposed FISA bill actually says:

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.

In short, Klein said something that was clearly and demonstrably incorrect.  It was false.

When called upon his egregious error, he wrote five follow-up columns in which he admitted to possibly making a mistake, but never bothering to correct the mistake because he lacked "the time" and "legal training".  Of course, he had the "time" to talk to a Republican operative and get the original misinformation, he had "time" to write the original article, and he had the "time" to write several follow-up articles trying to defend himself.  But he apparently didn’t have time to actually read the FISA bill which is written in plain English and doesn’t require legal training to decipher. 

Stoller sums it up:

Everyone makes mistakes, even big ones. But Klein’s meltdown has been epic. He first denied the problem, then conceded it, then argued it wasn’t a big deal, and then concluded he couldn’t figure out if he got it wrong or right and it wasn’t a big deal anyway.

Time has finally issued a "correction" to the article which, like Klein himself days before, doesn’t actually make any correction.  It reads as follows:

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.

This is what is wrong with journalism today.  Nowhere in the article is the actual language from the FISA bill printed.  Instead, what is reported is the "he said, she said".  It’s stenography; not reportage. 

Atrios puts the Time approach to journalism to the test here:

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.

What is the truth?  Well, the moden media outlet would just throw up its hands and say, "Hey.  We’re only reporting what we were told!"

Here’s Greenwald:

Leave aside the false description of what Klein wrote. He didn’t say "that the House Democratic version of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) would allow a court review of individual foreign surveillance targets." He said that their bill "would require the surveillance of every foreign-terrorist target’s calls to be approved by the FISA court" and "would give terrorists the same legal protections as Americans." But the Editor’s false characterization of Klein’s original lie about the House FISA bill is the least of the issues here.

All Time can say about this matter is that Republicans say one thing and Democrats claim another. Who is right? Is one side lying? What does the bill actually say, in reality?

That’s not for Time to say. After all, they’re journalists, not partisans. So they just write down what each side says. It’s not for them to say what is true, even if one side is lying.

In this twisted view, that is called "balance" — writing down what each side says. As in: "Hey – Bush officials say that there is WMD in Iraq and things are going great with the war (and a few people say otherwise). It’s not for us to decide. It’s not our fault if what we wrote down is a lie. We just wrote down exactly what they said." At best, they write down what each side says and then go home. That’s what they’re for.

Greenwald goes even further, noting that this is not only stenography, but BAD stenography:

I worked for years with highly professional stenographers in hundreds of depositions and court proceedings. Their defining trait is that they have a fierce devotion to transcribing accurately everything that is said and doing nothing else. It’s not uncommon for lawyers, in the heat of some dispute, to attempt to recruit the stenographer into the controversy in order to say who is right.

Stenographers will never do that. They will emphasize that they are only there to write down what is said, not to resolve disputes or say what actually happened — exactly like Time Magazine and most of our press corps. If someone in a court proceeding voices even the most blatantly false accusations, stenographers will faithfully write it down and publish it without comment — exactly like Time Magazine and most of our press corps, at least when it comes to claims from the government and its GOP operatives.

But there’s a fundamental difference: stenographers are far better at their job, since they give equal weight to what all parties say. But Time and friends exist principally to trumpet government claims and minimize and belittle anything to the contrary, and they pretend to "balance" it all only when they’re caught mindlessly transcribing these one-sided claims and are forced to do write down what the other side says, too. The bulk of our establishment journalists aren’t merely stenographers. They’re bad stenographers.

Better media please.

Another must read — Jon Swift’s satirical 20 Rules For Joournalism.