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Great Moments in Journalism

A couple of weeks ago, Joe Klein wrote a column for Time excoriating the Democrats for pushing an amendment to FISA that, according to Klein's understanding, "would require the surveillance of every foreign-terrorist target's calls to be approved by the … Read More

By / November 28, 2007

A couple of weeks ago, Joe Klein wrote a column for Time excoriating the Democrats for pushing an amendment to FISA that, according to Klein's understanding, "would require the surveillance of every foreign-terrorist target's calls to be approved by the FISA court." Klein's conclusion: "In the lethal shorthand of political advertising," the bill "would give terrorists the same legal protections as Americans."

So, politically unsavvy Democrats hand Republicans another propaganda victory on national security issues, and are unserious about protecting the country to boot. This is a story that mainstream pundits are willing and able to write, by rote, in their sleep, on any occasion in which the parties debate national security. But never mind, it's a great scoop. The only problem with it is that it's unequivocally false. The RESTORE act (as it's being called) simply does not require FISA approval of all targeted calls, as Klein alleges, but only in cases in which Americans are spied upon — a position Klein ostensibly agrees with. In other words, in order to churn out a lazy, uninformed, prefabricated narrative about Democratic insouciance on national security issues, Klein resorted to using a limpid bit of RNC spin as his central exhibit, without bothering to do an even rudimentary investigation of his own.

Staking out a — count them — fifth position on his column's accuracy, Klein finally throws up the white flag, admitting "I have neither the time nor legal background to figure out who's right." Which is, naturally, a dilemma that suggests its own solution. If you can't comprehend legislative language, draw valid inferences from it, etc., just don't write about it. It really isn't that difficult.

Meanwhile, nearly two full weeks too late, Time got around to posting a correction to the original article. Here it is:

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.

No muss, no fuss. Democrats say one thing, Republicans say another, about an actually fairly straightforward empirical proposition that either is, or is not, true. Mind you, Time feels no obligation to tell its readers whether it's true — how could one even begin to decide such a thing anyway — as long as it lets them know two contradictory claims about a matter of fact exist. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what responsible journalism is all about.

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