Stenographers to the Powerful

There’s a mini-scandal brewing over a Time magazine column by Joe Klein that attacked House Democrats for playing politics with the domestic wiretapping issue. Klein wrote that the House Democratic proposal would, among other things, “require the surveillance of every foreign-terrorist target’s calls to be approved by the FISA court” and “give terrorists the same legal protections as Americans.” In an accompanying blog post he accuses Democrats of standing in the way of sensible legislation “because of blind, stupid partisan politics.”

Now, as Ryan Singel ably demonstrates virtually every word of the FISA discussion in Klein’s article is false. The Dems’ proposal doesn’t require court approval to intercept communications overseas, nor does it “give terrorists the same legal protections as Americans.” The bill isn’t that long or complicated; had Klein bothered to actually read it, it would have been obvious that these characterizations were false. Klein even seems confused about which legislation the House has been considering. Klein issued a weasely follow-up post on his blog on Saturday conceding that he “may have made a mistake” in discussing the details of the bill but sticking by his “larger point” that House Democrats were to blame for holding up sensible legislation.

Today, Time issued its own correction to the online version of the column, and will apparently print that correction in the magazine as well. It reads, in its entirety:

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.

As Glenn Greenwald points out, it’s hard to find a pithier summation of all that’s wrong with our nation’s media elites. The editors of the nation’s most popular newsweekly apparently don’t believe it’s their job to evaluate the two sides’ competing claims and decide which is more credible. They seem to believe that “balance” simply requires faithfully transcribing each side’s claims. Even when one side’s claims is clearly true and the other side’s claim is clearly false, it’s not the reporter’s job to say so, or even to quote an independent expert saying so.

And that, of course, leaves Time’s four million readers with the erroneous impression that the Democrats want to give overseas terrorists the same legal protection as American citizens. Most readers aren’t going to take the time to read the bill and disentangle the competing claims. Most don’t read Glenn Greenwald’s blog, Ryan Singel’s blogs, or Cato@Liberty.

It’s worth mentioning the broader context here. The House Democrats’ bill, known as the Restore Act, is far from perfect. It allows the executive branch to intercept foreign-to-domestic calls on American soil without a warrant in certain circumstances, which I think runs afoul of the spirit of the Fourth Amendment. But the legislation is much better than the Protect America Act Congress passed in August, and better than the companion legislation being discussed in the Senate. And the House Democrats have resisted intense lobbying from the telecommunications industry to give them retroactive blanket immunity for illegally sharing their customers’ private information with the government. They deserve more credit than anyone else in Congress or the White House for putting principle above political expediency.

Klein has rewarded them for their courage by repeating inaccurate Republican talking points and thereby smearing them as soft on terrorism. By refusing to print a meaningful correction—one that points out that the Democrats proposal does not, in fact, “give terrorists the same legal protections as Americans”—they are perpetuating the false impression that thousands of ordinary Time readers got from Klein’s column. And they are also starkly revealing the sad state of elite journalism.