I have been following the blog-battle between Time’s Joe Klein and Salon’s Glenn Greenwald through the weekend. It was launched with Time’s publication of a Klein column in which he discussed recent legislative initiatives surrounding the amendment of FISA, a complex federal statute that establishes the procedures for surveillance of domestic communications. Here is the core of Klein’s column in the current Time, entitled “Tone-Deaf Democrats”:
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.
I am a compulsive Klein-reader, and I read this when it went up at the Time website. I winced immediately. Not only was the substance of this description factually inaccurate in almost every respect, it was the very core of the piece. Moreover, what Time ran was a shameless mouthing of talking points that had been circulating on Capitol Hill by Republican spinmeisters through the prior week.
Now when Joe’s good, he’s very, very good. He masters an Old Testament Prophet voice when it comes to the foolishness in Washington that has no equal. He is, after all, the author of Primary Colors, and the man who had thoroughly diagnosed Bill Clinton as the rest of us were learning his name for the first time. But when Joe’s bad, he’s awful. And this was the worst thing I’ve seen emerge from the Klein pen in quite sometime. And the worst thing about it—the unforgivable sin, and the one to which all writers-facing-imminent-deadline are vulnerable, is its lack of originality. It’s always so tempting to take some pre-packaged product from the partisan PR masters of Washington and print it. And that’s just what Joe did, to the great chagrin of his faithful readers.
Glenn Greenwald at Salon leapt on the Klein piece immediately and I have lost track of the number of posts he’s put up. The phrase “pit bull” is a bit shopworn, and often inappropriately used, but Greenwald is exactly that. He has an eagle eye for legal policy issues, and he’s been on top of the FISA policy issues like few others. The truth is that FISA is extremely technical and complex, and few people have devoted the time and care to master it—most of them are lawyers. Most journalists are not, and indeed, many lack the patience and attention necessary. And the Bush Administration’s FISA apologists work feverishly to exploit the intellectually lazy. I am very surprised and very disappointed to see Joe Klein in that crowd.
And disappointing as that discovery was, what followed was even worse. Time’s follow-up to the well-deserved criticism has been defensive and its concessions of factual error grudging. And all of this reflects not so much an error on the part of Klein as the Time editors.
This has been an extremely bad week for Joe Klein. But it doesn’t change my positive opinion of him and his abilities. And if he’ll just give us another work of the quality of Primary Colors, I’ll forgive him entirely.
Editor and Publisher has just secured the text of the “correction” that Time is running. Here it is:
Correction: I was wrong to write last week that the House Democratic version of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) would require a court approval of individual foreign surveillance targets. The bill does not explicitly say that. Republicans believe it can be interpreted that way, but Democrats don’t. Toe [sic] read the disputed section of the bill, go to time.com/fisa.
I expected a “grudging” correction. But this isn’t a correction at all, it’s an acceptance of a world of divided red and blue realities. Perhaps next Time will tell us that Republicans believe that WMDs were found in Iraq, but Democrats do not. The word for this and other excuses offered up by Klein in the last few days is simple: unprofessional. This isn’t coming from the journalist I have known and respected for so many years. Something has happened.