Time Pundit’s Rant and (Partly) Misguided Sense of Privacy


At Time magazine’s Swampland blog, Joe Klein has posted an astonishing attack on Salon’s Glenn Greenwald. He starts:

Twice in the past month, my private communications have been splashed about the internet. That such a thing would happen is unfortunate, and dishonorable, but sadly inevitable, I suppose. I ignored the first case, in which a rather pathetic woman acolyte of Greenwald’s published a hyperbolic account of a conversation I had with her at a beach picnic on Cape Cod. Now, Greenwald himself has published private emails of mine that were part of a conversation taking place on a list-serve. In one of those emails, I say that Greenwald “cares not a whit for America’s national security.”

The commenters below Klein’s rant, and Greenwald himself, do a more than adequate job of refuting the factual misstatements and showing why, in fact, Klein deserves what he’s been getting in the way of criticism. He’s a good writer and frequently an astute commentator, but he has committed serious journalistic malpractice, backed by editors who refuse to honorably admit their own gross errors; they’re part of a Beltway media culture that has so often in recent years disgraced the craft.

The post I’ve cited above betrays quaint notions of what is private in today’s world. And it’s an almost perfect illustration of how not to conduct a conversation in which basic issues are in dispute.

Let’s begin by examining Klein’s definition of “private communications.” If they were truly private, it would indeed be unfortunate, even dishonorable, if they’d been exposed. But they weren’t really private at all.

The most baffling notion in Klein’s post is that his posts to the “JournoList,” a mailing list of at least several hundred influential “journalists, bloggers and policy wonks” are, or even should be, equivalent to “private emails.” This is ludicrous on at least two levels.

First, even a closed mail list is a long way from one-to-one emails, which have the illusion of privacy but, as anyone the least bit familiar with computer security understands, are too easily subject to surveillance. A mail list of 20 people might — might — stay with just those people. The JournoList is going to suffer leaks. Period.

I’m on, and have been a member of, several mail lists. I do not assume for a second that anything I write there is private. In fact, I assume the precise opposite: that anything I say online in even a semi-public forum is likely to make its way to anyone else. You should assume the same thing. Period.

Second, the JList, as the insiders (I’m not one) call it, testifies to the fundamental seaminess of Washington’s journalistic culture. Its members — power players in American political life — are using it to thrash out what they believe. Policies and journalism may well be influenced by what they discuss there. If the insider-participant journalists weren’t so compromised by their presence on the list, some of them (one hopes) would be doing their best to expose what’s being said there. I would nominate for a Pulitzer Prize any journalist who got ahold of JList archives and published, along with the archives themselves, a thorough analysis of how/whether its members’ postings had influenced policy and public understanding.

The question gets murkier when we think about where to draw the line in what’s private, or should be. If the members of JList debated each other over bar stools, wouldn’t that be a different issue? Yes, and no, and that gets to the other part of Klein’s whine.

Klein cites the public recounting of a conversation held in the middle of a Cape Cod party, and this is a much closer call. (Here’s the woman’s post about their conversation; Klein hasn’t disputed the substance of what she wrote, and he definitely hasn’t answered the important questions she raised, such as her request that he name names when accusing prominent Democrats of hating America.)

You can make a good argument that party talk — at most a semi-public venue — deserves some leeway. I’m deeply ambivalent about the idea that people would post their recollections of what I’d said at a party (including the possibility or probability that both people in our the conversation had been drinking, and what that might mean as to the reliability of the recounting; NOTE: THIS IN NO WAY REFERS TO THE CONVERSATION INVOLVING KLEIN ON CAPE COD).

As noted, Klein is a public figure who cultivates a public following. He was holding forth at a party in a public place about his beliefs — including in this case his vitriol for another person who has gone after him about the work he does for a huge audience. Is he really so naive to the reality of blogging and mobile-phone cameras that he couldn’t imagine that some element of his ranting wouldn’t escape from this well-attended party into the public sphere?

Again, not only will such things emerge, but in some cases they should. If a politician or powerful business person started ranting at a party in this way, about matters such a person could influence, (real) journalists would consider that news. Why, then, when powerful journalists are the ones doing the ranting, are their statements unworthy of public attention?

Even public figures, deeply flawed journalists and hypocrites deserve some privacy, however. I don’t want to see us recording everything we hear in every setting; that would be poison to the kinds of conversations we all need to have, especially the kinds of conversations where we give ourselves the essential freedom to say stupid things that a wise friend or colleague can shoot down. We all say and do stupid things all the time, and a society that made us too cautious would be a deadened one.

Klein’s distress over the reporting of his outburst at the Cape Cod party is understandable, then, even if it’s hypocritical and ultimately unworthy of too much sympathy. In the end, we all might be better off he’d been cut some slack in this particular case. What the blogger reported came as no surprise to anyone who was following Klein’s work; I just wish she’d found a way to confront him in a place that everyone would consider entirely public.

UPDATE: Aimai, the blogger in question, strongly disagrees with me in the comments. She’s not the only one who thinks I’m wrong about this.


However mistaken Klein’s view of privacy may be, he’s clearly clueless about another element of discourse, online or not.

You can never win a debate — at least not any debate that I pay attention to — by resorting to ad hominum insults. If everyone adopted this tenet, we might all be better informed.

Klein’s reference to what he terms Greenwald’s “rather pathetic woman acolyte” at the Cape Cod party is a tip-off that the facts are probably not on his side. But Klein reserves his most vehement insults for Greenwald, and in the process costs himself credibility.

When you read someone else’s mind and declare that the other person doesn’t care about national security, for example, you are engaging in something indefensible. You are implying that the other person is, let’s put this bluntly, a traitor who welcomes terrorist attacks on our nation. If Klein has evidence of this he should produce it or apologize; do not hold your breath.

And when Klein calls Greenwald a bully, that’s rich. It’s Klein who commands the podium at one of America’s biggest media companies, while Greenwald writes for a well-respected but relatively tiny online publication.

Greenwald is extremely tough on the people he criticizes, but he marshals enormous amounts of evidence for what he writes. He also has an occasional tendency toward shrillness, which I believe (from my own mistakes in this regard in the past) can be a distraction from the facts and conclusions he’s posting.

But Greenwald has gone way, way out on a journalistic limb — itself a sad commentary on the state of journalism in recent times — to champion the Constitution of the United States and the liberties that have helped make us a strong nation. By any standard I can name, preserving liberty is an essential part of national security. Greenwald, in my view, is more patriotic than the people who’d shred the Bill of Rights to create an illusion of security.

Klein’s ugly and evidence-thin invective demeans him and what he claims to believe, far more than anything it says about Greenwald. He’d be wise to use his platform to argue the issues — if he has arguments that genuinely hold up. In too many cases, he hasn’t, maybe because he doesn’t have the best of the debate.

15 thoughts on “Time Pundit’s Rant and (Partly) Misguided Sense of Privacy”

  1. Found this via Jay Rosen’s Twitter feed.  Very thorough, intelligent analysis of the situation.  Thanks.  I especially appreciate this:

    When you read someone else’s mind and declare that the other person doesn’t care about national security, for example, you are engaging in something indefensible. You are implying that the other person is, let’s put this bluntly, a traitor who welcomes terrorist attacks on our nation. If Klein has evidence of this he should produce it or apologize; do not hold your breath. 

    My only question is about this part:

    He also has a tendency toward shrillness, which I believe (from my own mistakes in this regard in the past) can be a distraction from the facts and conclusions he’s posting.

    Surely “shrillness” is in the eye of the beholder?  It’s a very subjective description, and I suspect quite dependent on whether one agrees with the basic premise of the writing or not.   
    If Greenwald is to be called “shrill,” then specific evidence should be offered, and a working definition of “shrill,” to boot.  The word is too often used as a blunt instrument to marginalize someone’s seriousness and credibility.
    Beyond that, excellent article. 

    1. I tweaked that slightly. He’s not often shrill (my impression), but I think if he dialed back the fury 5 percent he’d be even more effective.

  2. My problem is the idea that you ought to be able to slander someone at a party — someone who isn’t there– to not just one but a number of people, and that telling the victim of slander about it (or writing about it) could be violating the slanderer’s privacy. Huh?  It’s legally actionable– to defame someone else’s personal or professional honor to even a single third party– and so the law doesn’t recognize a “Beach party” exemption.
    I have no problem at all with the honesty of the woman blogger who was the recipient of Joe Klein’s intemperate malice in publishing her story, and in Glenn’s decision to point to that post and respond to it.  We just don’t have the right– even in what we want to believe is a private place– to slander other people.

    And Glenn would be entirely within his rights to sue. After all, Klein has been slandering him -in secret, with no rebuttal allowed– to other journalists and editors. Glenn is a journalist/columnist, and his professional reputation has been defamed.
    I know he won’t sue, but Klein really ought to think about what he’s doing or saying, and maybe re-aim his anger at politicians?

    1. I’m not endorsing slander by any means, and if he believes he’s being slandered he could sue (though I doubt he’d bother). I also have no issue with the blogger’s honesty, by the way; what she posted has the ring of truth. We differ on whether it was right to publish. By the thinnest of margins I feel it was not appropriate — in large part because these issue could have been addressed in a more obviously public forum — but as noted it is a very very close call.

  3. I’m pretty sure that Aimai thought long and hard before posting her account of Klein’s unhinged barbecue rant. She is a rational, well-respected figure around the blogosphere and not given to drunken verbal fisticuffs at all. So I don’t think your assumption that SHE was under the influence of alcohol is fair, and you make that suggestion without a shred of evidence.
    There have been a number of accounts of Klein’s, and other people’s, drunken rantings at cocktail parties. The Jonathan Weisman incident with Joe Klein is the stuff of legends. Ana Marie Cox’s drunken arguments with Eric Alterman and others have been documented and made the rounds. Figures in the mainstream media have made veritable careers out of worse – Robin Givhan, Liz Smith, Hedda Hopper.  So I don’t think your pearl clutching is in order.
    It helps to keep in mind that the discussion at the barbecue began with the mother’s milk of the beltway — discussion of politics and policy. Klein then lapsed into an unhinged and incoherent slander of Glenn Greenwald. Why wouldn’t someone report that? This man is a prominent columnist and a regular guest on political talk shows and he expects to be taken Seriously whenever he speaks and writes. Why wouldn’t someone report that behind the scenes he is an angry, vile, unhinged and vengeful gossipmonger and liar. His reading audience needs to know that. Then they can make their own judgment about his credibility.

  4. Shrillness.  I think an example would be statements
    that a republic based on a constitution and rule of law cannot survive if both the constitution and rule of law are ignored
    for certain powerful people.
    Why is this shrill? Because it is not particularly supported by the facts. Things can go along for a LONG time like this.
    Long enough for others to doubt that ‘cannot survive’ phrase.
    I am not saying that GG has made such statements, because
    my memory is not nearly good enough to claim that. That is the tone
    that _I_ hear as I read some of GG’s articles.

  5. Let me ask you this.  What if it were a politician exhibiting this kind of behavior?  What if it were John McCain going off on a drunken rant at the barbecue he threw for his favorite journalists?  What if he launched an unhinged slander against a fellow Senator, or against Barack Obama, complete with unhinged rantings about the person in question being EVIL!!! and WIKIPEDIA IS LEFTIST!!!  Would a journalist be right or wrong to report this behavior to his or her reading audience?  Would that be reportable behavior? Or do you advocate keeping that kind of behavior secret from people who are trying to make judgments about someone’s credibility?
    What did you think about Mayhill Fowler reporting Barack Obama’s  “bitter” remarks? Was that a “very close call” because the “issue could have been addressed in a more obviously public forum”? Was that a reportable moment, in your judgment?

  6. Hm. I don’t mean to pull a Joe Klein and get all thin skinned and shrill but I really think the implication that my perfectly ordinary blog post was over the line–and that the original interaction involved any kind of drunken behavior–is just bizarre.
    It may have escaped your attention but Joe Klein markets himself–at beach parties and other places–as a man with a lot of gossip to retell.  He’s invited to these and other parties not for his charm of person, which is, to say the least, lacking but because people hope he will let some pearl of wisdom, or some unusual piece of gossip, fall. He’s a professional toady to power and raconteur of tid bits about important political people and policy issues.
    I was on the receiving end of his stock in trade.  We got into an argument because I vehemently disagreed with his pose of omniscience, his lying by indirection to the other members of the barbecue (since he wouldn’t admit to the real source of his anger with Glenn), and his buffoon like failures of journalistic integrity.  There were other journalists at the party, and we got into an all round discussion of blogger vs. journalist ethics.  Joe didn’t ask me if I was a blogger but that was just because his sexism, and his professional arrogance, prevented him from assuming that this might be the case. Other people at the party knew that I blogged occasionally.
    Perhaps you don’t know many people who are willing to engage in a public argument without alcohol? I do. Neither Joe nor I was drunk. He’s just a boor by nature and I’m a tough talking broad by nature.
    The barbecue was a public place–on a public beach, even.  But more to the point if I were the famous one Joe would have gone right home and written another novel about it, anonymously of course. I don’t think he had the right to assume that his communications with me would be kept private. And I certainly didn’t think that my communications with him, if he thought he could turn a buck off them, would be kept private.

    1. Aimai, I didn’t intend to imply in any way at all that you (or Klein) was drunk or even drinking, but I can see how it might read that way. My apologies, and I’ve added a line to clarify that. That line was in reference solely to me in a similar circumstance, nothing more. You were right to call him on what he wrote; but, again, I wish you’d been able to do it under slightly different circumstances.

  7. I wish you’d been able to do it under slightly different circumstances.
    What do you envision as those “slightly different” circumstances? You’re fanning yourself with your hanky over something I can’t quite fathom.
    Joe was, not to put too fine a point on it, showing off when he started his bluster about Grassley. As Aimai pointed out, and as we all recognize from our own experience of aggressive opinionators at parties, he was essentially PERFORMING for the crowd, making political remarks to a group of people in the hope that they would give him their attention, nod along to the amazing truth of his insight and perhaps even tell others, maybe even some Important others, about what he said — as long as they did it ADMIRINGLY, of course.
    Joe Klein wouldn’t have been the least bit upset — and likely even pleased — if someone had written a blog post about his “private” words at the party if they had been praising him. His “privacy” would have been equally “invaded” by a fawning fan quoting him, but that would have been all right with Joe. It was essentially WHAT HE WANTED to have happen. He wanted people to notice what The Great Joe Klein was saying about Chuck Grassley, and to take him and his opinion seriously.
    And if someone had reported the subsequent fireworks in a way that painted Joe in a good light (“boy he really cleaned her clock!” or some such), he would have thought that was fine and dandy, too. It would have elevated him socially and professionally, and let’s face it, that was goal of his smoke blowing from the start.
    So what is wrong with revealing those remarks in a critical context rather than the positive one he would have preferred? Nothing. At. All.
    Another prima donna blowhard finds out — to his aggrieved astonishment that people aren’t ALL thrilled to be in the presence of his greatness, listening to him with bated breath. A smart man might take that knowledge and think that maybe he should regroup and review how he’s coming across.
    Joe should thank Aimai for the lesson. Too bad he’s obviously not learning it.

  8. There is a principled argument to be made that writers (journalists, novelists, screenwriters) who take private interactions with the people around them as fodder for published work without explicit consent are engaged in a questionable activity.
    The author of “Primary Colors” is definitely NOT the person to make that argument.

  9. Just for the record, I was able to figure out that the writer was talking generally about drinking at parties and not saying that people were drunk at the party in question.  Wasn’t really hard to figure out without the clarification.
    I will say that there are privacy issues here in general, but in this specific case I see no problem with recounting the argument.  It isn’t even close to the line.
    My 2 cents.

  10. “…Things can go along for a LONG time like this….”

    Yes, they can, for certain values of “go along”, but bad stuff starts happening right away and the disproportion between the time-to-damage and the time-to-repair grows exponentially.

    Greenwald’s writing would benefit from [much] greater concision, but that is a criticism of his craft, not of his philosophy.

  11. I continue to be amazed at what vehement asininity is not shrill and what principled sense is shrill in US political discourse – and not just in its mainstream media.
    Why is no GOP politician, no matter how barking mad, ever described as shrill? Drop the term. To use it is to have internalised GOP/MSM framing. Shrill is impotent and wussy – everything that Limbaugh, Fox etc hold liberals to be.
    If you must differ with Greenwald’s tone, please refrain from borrowing Karl Rove’s pen. Try to make sense instead.

  12. It should read ad hominem as ad should be followed by the accusative case, in this case hominem, the accusative singular of homo. You wrote ad hominum, which construction does not exist in the Latin language.

Comments are closed.