Monday, June 11, 2007

An Open Letter To Joe Klein

...Fury begets fury. Poison from the right-wing talk shows seeped into the Republican Party's bloodstream and sent that party off the deep end. Limbaugh's show—where Dick Cheney frequently expatiates—has become the voice of the Republican establishment. The same could happen to the Democrats. The spitballs aimed at me don't matter much. The spitballs aimed at Harman, Clinton and Obama are another story. Despite their votes, each of those politicians believes the war must be funded. (Obama even said so in his statement explaining his vote.) Each knows, as Senator Jim Webb has said repeatedly, that we must be more careful getting out of Iraq than we were getting in. But they allowed themselves to be bullied into a more simplistic, more extreme position. Why? Partly because they fear the power of the bloggers to set the debate and raise money against them. They may be right—in the short (primary election) term; Harman faced a challenge from the left in 2006. In the long term, however, kowtowing to extremists is exactly the opposite of what this country is looking for after the lethal radicalism of the Bush Administration.
Your fears are not unjustified, Mr. Klein. What I think you miss as a point is the anger of Blogtopia (© Skippy, the Bush Kangaroo, who's hosting a "No Funds For Dems" rally at his place), and while that anger could, should and is being correctly directed at Clinton, Obama, and Harman, you have justified your own petar' hoisting.

Let's take your case, in particular, before we look at Obama et al. You write in your print column this week:
A strange thing happened to me the day the House of Representatives voted to pass the Iraq-war-funding bill. Congresswoman Jane Harman of California called as the debate was taking place. "Look, I would love to have cast a vote against Bush on this," she told me. "We need a new strategy, and I hope we can force one in September. But I flew into Baghdad [with 150 young soldiers recently]. To vote against this bill was to vote against giving them the equipment... they need. I couldn't do that." I posted what Harman said on Swampland, the political blog at, along with my opinion that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had changed their positions and voted against the funding for the worst possible reason: presidential politics.

And then Harman changed her position. After we spoke, she voted against the funding. The next day, I was blasted by a number of left-wing bloggers: Klein screwed up! I had quoted Harman in the past tense—common usage for politicians who know their words will appear after a vote takes place. That was sloppy and... suspicious! Proof that you just can't trust the mainstream media. On Eschaton, a blog that specializes in media bashing, I was given the coveted "Wanker of the Day" award. Eventually, Harman got wind of this and called, unbidden, to apologize for misleading me, saying I had quoted her correctly but she had changed her mind to reflect the sentiments of her constituents. I published her statement and still got hammered by bloggers and Swampland commenters for "stalking" Harman into an apology, for not checking her vote in the Congressional Record, for being a "water boy for the right wing" and many other riffs unfit to print.
(emphasis added) They is none so blind as he who will not see.

Let me describe this from where I, a moderate to liberal Democrat who often gets accused of the same things you do: apologizing for a dysfunctional system, see this. Let's use Harman's quote as the underpinning of this description, but you and I both know you've screwed up like this before, and I could substitute any number of topics here. You raised this one, however.

As a blogger, I understand the value of being "firstest" with a story. I haven't broken any stories on my blog, but when I find a tidbit that I think may become a story shortly, I write about what I've found. This often means going back later and realizing I made a mistake when things didn't turn out the way I predicted they might.

Which is, in effect, what you did with Harman's statement: published it, but got the story wrong. Nothing wrong with that. Should you have waited to check her vote in the CR? I think so, but I'm not paid to be first (or right...I just prefer it that way).

But think about this for a second: your idea of a breaking story is to tell us what a politician told you.


True, you are not a beat reporter on the police desk, trying to dig up the facts around a murder, or an investigative journalist hellbent on uncovering the bribe that allowed a Hormel plant to package bad meat.

Neither, and this is the important bit, are you the mouthpiece for any politician whom you have access to, which is what annoys us most of all about you, as well as Tim Russert, or Chris Matthews, or anyone who appears on TV on a regular basis pontificating about "the news".

We bloggers are asking the right questions, questions that demand answers. We don't have the access or influence to truly press a politician about those questions.

You have the access, yet you don't ask the right questions. Can you imagine how frustrating that is?

Admittedly, some of the questions can range from vitally important to pretty ridiculous. No one's saying you should be our mouthpiece either. But when a Jane Harman talks about "supporting our troops," the legitimate question of "why do we even have troops in the field any longer and isn't voting for this bill an endorsement of that policy?" has to be asked. If you had, it sure wasn't evident from the story you posted (I should note here that, while I do not know Marcy Winograd, Harman's primary challenger in 2006, I do regularly correspond with a family member of hers).

Neither did you explore this issue in your print piece I've linked to, and I'd like you to do that: explain why, when you have this access, you aren't asking tougher questions.

I can think of several reasons on my own: the Bush administration has been very tough on journalists who don't tow the line, for one; for another, you won't get invited to the cool parties in Georgetown if you're viewed as an adversary.

These are rather weak excuses, if you ask me: my freedom depends on your reporting and the reporting of hundreds of others in Washington. In toto, you're collectively failing to do your jobs. Joe, your small "gaffe" is a tiny piece of it, but as with global climate change, every atom of carbon adds up to the crisis.

With global climate change, if we can't stand the heat, there's nothing we can do about it, except look to our own lives and hope we can make a difference. With your reporting tho, we can. We can call attention to our dissatisfaction with your efforts, and hope you'll do better next time. We can ask you to keep a more critical eye on the reporting of others, to stop sucking at the teat of the cocktail circuit and go back and start recalling the lessons you learned in Journalism 101.

As Izzy Stone put it, "Report the news so that no story is a surprise to anyone." You don't want us on your butt about getting the Harman story wrong? Then make sure it's right.

Let me talk about the politicians here, as well. Part of the problem we on the left (even us moderate lefties) have with Obama, Clinton, and Harman, amongst nearly all the others (even Mike Gravel), is that they serve two houses: us and mammon. We, the people, feel we ought to come first, but let's face facts. We, the people don't any longer. When a politician is elected on November 3rd, let's say, and by November 4th has sent out her or his first contribution solicitation (don't laugh, I've gotten them), it's annoying to me, but it also speaks volumes about who really has a Senator's ear in DC.

And YOU, Joe, ought to be calling them on that! Instead of enabling them by transcribing what they say (and boy, does Stephen Colbert have the DC media by the balls when he talks about this!) you ought to be asking who benefits from their talking point, and looking into that. And this goes for Democrats as well as (and in particular with) Republicans.

We would cut Clinton and Obama slack if we thought you and your journalist buddies weren't going to go roll over for the next flavor politician. We can't trust you to do your jobs, so we have to do it for you.

Frankly, I'd be happy to hand this back over to you. I'd prefer that you wrote the stories, and me and Duncan and Kos and everyone over at My Left Wing could say "Gee, that Klein guy really got a story out of Hillary over her war vote!"

We do it for Olbermann. We do it for Stewart. We did it for Dobbs at CNN when he talked fact and not propaganda, and for Jack Cafferty. Hell, we did it for Imus when he asked the tough questions, and look where he ranks on our radar now!

Since it's up to us to defend our right to know, I'm sure you can understand that some of us are justifiably panicked by this assault on our freedom, and we'll overreact.

Really. People get scared when the impending image of our future is a world where corporations and government tag-team us, and the only referee is owned by AOL, or General Electric, or Disney, or Viacom. We might, just maybe, view the deck as stacked against us and get a bit pissed off.

Were the overall criticisms of you fair? Joe, I've read your column for years now, and I find you to be fairly even-handed, middle-of-the-road (sorry, you're not that liberal), but willing to take an honest look at issues. But an honest look at issues means going out and testing the information you have, and if you don't do it, that bothers me. A lot.

Quoting a general on the ground in Iraq is fine. But Knight Ridder made a lot of news by actually getting on the ground and seeing what the captains and colonels thought. We need you to do the equivalent of that when it comes to a self-serving statement by political phonies who deign to allow you to quote them because it might distort their record in a way that massages their chances for re-election.

In effect, using you as a tool.

I'd feel pretty ugly about that, if I was in your shoes.