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.

‘Skanky’ Blogging, Anonymity and What’s Right

Here we go again — a new attack on anonymous speech, misusing the facts ripped from the current headlines about a case of one person’s slimy online attacks on another. So, as what Maureen Dowd today called the “Case of the Blond Model and the Malicious Blogger” gains publicity steam, Dowd and too many other commentators seem to be missing some key points and drawing the wrong lessons.

To refresh your memory, if you haven’t heard about it, this case involves Liskula Cohen, a model who was on the receiving end of some vile comments next to suggestive pictures, posted under a pseudonym on one of gazillions of such blogs at Google’s Blogger service. Cohen’s lawyer persuaded a judge that the posts were arguably defamatory, and the judge ordered Google to turn over the email address and other logged information it had about the blogger. The company, after first denying Cohen’s request and saying she’d need a court order, then complied and handed over the information. The data trail led back to a Cohen acquaintance named Rosemary Port. Cohen, in a demonstration of her own better instincts, said she would forgive Port instead of suing her.

That’s where this nasty little incident might have ended. Unfortunately it appears to be heading off in new directions.

Port says she’s going to sue Google, arguing that she had a right to confidentiality. Give me a break. I’m a privacy nut, but I believe Google did exactly the right thing in this instance, in part because it obeyed a clear order from a judge who also did the right thing.

No one can dispute that we have a category of human slime that uses online anonymity (or, usually more accurately, pseudonymity) to attack other people. These people, classic cowards, hide behind the virtual bushes to take potshots, and they do so with the ugliest kind of satisfaction.

But as Cohen’s case shows — the postings about her weren’t even close to being the worst material I’ve seen from anonymous sources —  online media creators aren’t exempt  from defamation laws, though it may take more effort to find out who they are. The judge in New York, Joan A. Madden, looked at the facts and, in my view, correctly decided that Port’s blog postings were sufficiently crude to justify Cohen’s plans to file a defamation lawsuit — not that they were absolutely defamatory, but that they were within the ballpark that could justify letting a jury decide.

Port, for her part, told reporters that almost no one would have known about her sleazy behavior had Cohen not gone to court in the first place and had Google not turned her name over. Talk about twisted logic. Cohen, and most likely some of their mutual acquaintances, knew about it. And the likelihood, given the Internet’s staying power, is that at least some others would have seen Port’s remarks, too. Let’s hope the courts toss any lawsuit from Port into the nearest trash can.

But, as sometimes happens, the larger case is growing, in part due to the large amount of attention it’s received from media of all varieties — newspapers, TV, radio and, of course, blogs. It’s turning into a morality play that could have a real impact on the issue of anonymity. If that impact comes in the form of helping us to establish new norms of behavior, great. If it turns into new laws, watch out.

One of the norms we’d be wise to establish is this: People who don’t stand behind their words deserve, in almost every case, no respect for what they say. In many cases, anonymity is a hiding place that harbors cowardice, not honor. The more we can encourage people to use their real names, the better. But if we try to force this, we’ll create more trouble than we fix.

People who’d ban anonymity don’t seem to realize that it’s technically impossible unless we’re willing to turn over all of our communications in every venue to a central authority — a system that would herald the end of liberty. They can’t really want such a regime, can they? Meanwhile, even that kind of structure could and would be hacked by motivated types, though with more difficulty.

Moreover, anonymity has crucially important value. We need it for whistleblowers, for political dissidents in dictatorships — for those who have important stories to tell but whose lives or livelihoods would be in jeopardy if their identities were exposed.

In other words, to save the heroes who tell us about vital matters, we have to recognize that we’ll also have people who use free speech to ignoble ends. When they cross the line to defamation, they deserve the woes they may bring on themselves.

But we don’t want, in the end, to turn everything over to the lawyers. The rest of us — the audience, if you will — need to establish some new norms as well.

We are far too prone to accepting what we see and hear. We need to readjust our internal BS meters in a media-saturated age.

So start with this principle: When you read or hear an anonymous or pseudonymous attack on someone else, you should not just assume — barring persuasive evidence of the charge — that it’s false. Assume that the accuser is an outright, contemptible liar.

This wouldn’t solve the problem. But it would help.

When the Follow-Up Compounds the Problem

Inadequate journalism often leads to worse journalism. A case in point is Wired.com’s follow-up on a dubious Wall Street Journal story about alleged “deep packet inspection” (DPI) — an invasive digital surveillance method — on Iran’s mobile-Internet users.

Here’s how the Wired Threat Level blog posting, “Deep-Packet Inspection in U.S. Scrutinized Following Iran Surveillance,” begins:

Following a report last week that Iran is spying on domestic internet users with western-supplied technology, advocacy groups are pressuring federal lawmakers to scrutinize the use of the same technology in the U.S.

The Open Internet Coalition sent a letter to all members of the House and Senate urging them to launch hearings aimed at examining and possibly regulating the so-called deep-packet inspection technology.

Two senators also announced plans to introduce a bill that would bar foreign companies that sell IT technology to Iran from obtaining U.S. government contracts, legislation that is clearly aimed at the two European companies that reportedly sold the equipment to Iran.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Nokia Siemens Networks, a joint venture between Germany’s Siemens and Finland’s Nokia, recently gave Iran deep-packet inspection equipment that would allow the government to spy on internet users.

According to the Journal, Iranian officials have used deep-packet surveillance to snoop on the content of e-mail, VoIP calls and other online communication as well as track users’ other online activity, such as uploading videos to YouTube. Iranian officials are said to be using it to monitor activists engaged in protests over the country’s recent disputed presidential election, though the Journal said it couldn’t confirm whether Iran was using the Nokia Siemens Networks equipment for this purpose or equipment from another maker.

Nokia Siemens has denied that it provided Iran with such technology.

But similar technology is being installed at ISPs in the U.S.

The piece goes on at some length to discuss the reasonable concern about the threat posed by deep-packet inspection by ISPs, acting on their own initiative or for government-mandated surveillance.

But wait. The Journal’s weasel-worded original story itself (buried far down in the piece) acknowledges that the DPI may not be happening at all, at least not in the way the story strongly suggests or by the company it implicates. Read David Isenberg’s detailed explanations (here, here) to understand why the Journal story is so problematic.

Consider the sequence in the Wired follow-up:

1. Cite the Journal story and describe its contents with no hint that credible outside observers, such as Isenberg (a friend of mine), have major questions about its accuracy.

2. Add a sentence saying that the company accused of providing the gear to the Iran dictators flatly denies the report. (Don’t bother to mention that the only named source in the original Journal piece loudly denounced it on his own blog.)

3. Then pivot: Talk about US companies that are installing DPI equipment at ISPs, as if this proves the original point.

If Wired wanted to write about American ISPs using DPI — a topic that deserves wide attention — it shouldn’t peg the story to a Journal report that is so open to question, at least not without noting that people who understand the technology have raised serious questions about it.

Iran’s dictators are a murderous bunch; I have no doubt about that. Nor is there doubt that western telecom companies are selling dictators surveillance tools; they’ve been doing it for years — and in my view they are morally culpable in the misuse of those technologies. In the matter at hand, we don’t know for sure what’s going on.

For what it’s worth, I consider Wired’s Threat Level to be a normally credible and well-reported blog. But journalists should try harder to be careful on matters like this. Sloppiness in these circumstances can undermine our trust in everything else they report.