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.