Online news sites critical for holding reporters accountable

A measure of honor in journalism is the willingness to own up to mistakes. By that standard, Time has failed with a grossly inadequate response to some serious recent misinformation it foisted on readers.

A measure of honor in journalism is the willingness to own up to mistakes. By that standard, Time has failed with a grossly inadequate response to some serious recent misinformation it foisted on readers.

But Time couldn't fully duck responsibility, not now. It and other traditional journalists are learning that they can't ignore the new criticism, in the form of blogs and other media, that holds traditional journalists to the kind of account the profession has generally refused to do itself.

The issue in question stems from a column by the magazine's star political pundit, Joe Klein. He's been a fine thinker and writer on many occasions, which makes the current lapse all the more disappointing.

Klein's error-laden column was a scathing attack on congressional Democrats for their efforts to craft electronic surveillance legislation that would have put a few brakes on the Bush administration's insistence that there should effectively be no oversight. According to Klein, the Democrats' bill would have forced the government to obtain a court's permission every time it wanted to eavesdrop on a foreign surveillance target.

This charge was the heart of his attack on Democrats for what he called their utter tone-deafness on national security. Trouble was, he was flat wrong.

He might have realized that had he read the legislation. But, as it turned out later in subsequent days, not only hadn't he bothered to do even that much homework, but a key source was a hyper-partisan Republican congressman who had equal disregard for the truth.

Bloggers for several online news organizations, including Salon's Glenn Greenwald and Wired News' Ryan Singel, as well as independent bloggers such as Jane Hamsher of FireDogLake, were astonished at Klein's miscue. They loudly held him to account.

Klein's response was absurdly inadequate. In a series of blog posts on the Time Web site, he kept digging a deeper hole rather than admitting how wrong he'd been, though he did acknowledge he might - might - have made a teenie-weenie mistake somewhere.

Time's editors were even less responsible. They let him compound the damage in his blog postings and then didn't publish an honest correction. (This behavior contrasted with a straightforward correction from the Chicago Tribune, which had published excerpts from the Klein piece.)

Instead of honor, Time's editors chose spin. In the semi-correction they did run, they echoed Klein's "debate" among Democrats and Republicans over a blatantly false GOP "interpretation" of language that does not say what they claim. Thus, the magazine essentially announced that it was a stenography service, not a journalistic enterprise.

Journalists say they like to hold powerful people to account. But their thin-skinned resistance to being treated that way themselves, despite their very real power, is testament to a deeper problem: an institutional arrogance that, thank goodness, has been tempered somewhat in recent years.

All of which is why the intervention of the online journalists was so welcome, and so vital. Since we can't count on Big Media policing itself, we'll need all the outside help we can get.

Dan Gillmoris the author of We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People and director of the Center for Citizen Media (www.citmedia.org).

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in

Would you like to post a comment?

Please Sign in or register.