Joe Klein’s meltdown over the past ten days or so has rightly been focused on his uncritically passing along partisan lies. By itself it’s a huge ethical breach. Corrections have been tumbling out like clowns from a car. For as important as that issue alone is, there are two more issues raised by this episode: What media outlets regard as of primary importance and what their employees consider to be mainstream.
Klein repeatedly uses dismissive language when writing on the substance of the bill. He writes not on its merits but its prospects for passage. Having it obtain a veto-proof majority is a virtue in his estimation and outweighs the actual content. For the record, a veto has been overridden precisely once so far and it was for a pork-stuffed appropriation bill. On issues of policy Republicans are happily following Bush off the cliff, so it is profoundly unserious to suggest a veto-proof majority is possible here. Our President is in Imperial Executive mode and will not negotiate or compromise. In this case, though, he needs an existing law expanded and made permanent before it expires in February. Democrats could just let the law go off the books. In short, they don’t need a veto-proof anything. Klein got it wrong even on his ostensible main point.
What is going on that makes him regard the back room vote counting to be more important? What is of more consequence to Time’s four million subscribers - the impact in their lives if RESTORE passes or how well the leaders are keeping their members in line? Isn’t it more important for Time to inform its readers on the bill itself so they can make an intelligent decision on whether or not they support it? I’m guessing there are two factors driving this kind of substance-free play by play nonreporting that belongs only in a sports announcing booth: Timidity and laziness.
The timidity comes from major media outlets becoming lines on a multimedia corporation’s balance sheet. I’m sure the home office never dictates coverage or interferes, but that’s only because their employees are smart enough to censor themselves. They understand not to rock the boat. On the Time home page Wednesday there was a big old ad above the fold for the purple pill, and smaller ads for airlines, phone companies, cars, hotels and cell phones/PDAs below. Do you think we’ll see a hard hitting exposé on the corrosive effects of pharmaceutical industry lobbing on the nation’s health care? How about a full throated argument against amnesty for telecom companies that have been engaged in massive lawbreaking for the last seven years? They know which side their bread is buttered on, so they serve up lots of news you can use and tons of poll reading and speculation. They know they won’t be explicitly censored, but plum assignments, promotions, annual reviews and the like are another matter.
The laziness goes nicely with the timidity. A properly done exposé involves a lot of work, much of it drudge work. Tracking down primary sources and going through them with a fine toothed comb is not anyone’s idea of a good time, so the fact that their employers are ambivalent at best about that sort of thing gets them off the hook. It’s much easier to get poll numbers, talk to a spokesman, talk to an anonymous source, scribble it all down and publish it. You never have to even leave your seat. Once your Rolodex is filled up you can cruise for decades.
Finally, what do these folks think about this stuff? Basket warrants are antithetical to our country’s tradition of search and seizure. Why does Klein appear to regard banning it as a nice bargaining move by the Republicans? We have a couple centuries’ precedent on this; why isn’t the appropriate response “no patriotic American would ever even suggest such a thing”? Why is retroactive immunity not regarded with similar abhorrence for the same reason? We are not radicals. We are trying to preserve the way we’ve always done things. The radicals are the ones who want to change how justice and the law have been understood since the founding of the republic. Joe Klein may have personal connections with these folks and I’m sure they are lovely company at cocktail parties, but doesn’t he realize this at any level? He seems eager to present them as nothing more than one side of a valid argument. He may think such “he said/she said” stenography is objective and puts him above the fray, but he is wrong. It dignifies the radicals and makes him one as well.