James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Klein sweep: No room for lying ‘Joe the Columnist’ on campaign plane

Posted by James McPherson on October 21, 2008

Time magazine’s Joe Klein has apparently been banned from the John McCain’s campaign plane, a ban that apparently bugs the liberal bloggers at the Huffington Post, Politico and Think Progress more than it does Klein himself.

The McCain camp’s reasoning seems obvious: Klein has regularly criticized the campaign, for example noting that the candidate had a “fabulously loony weekend, flipping out charges like a mud tornado” while criticizing Obama for supporting ideas that McCain himself has supported. Still, others argue that in some cases, if any bias exists, it’s because Klein has been too kind to McCain.

Regardless, in this case perhaps the blame in the campaign plane isn’t mainly on McCain, so to speak. Frankly, if I were a candidate I wouldn’t let Klein on my plane (or, given a choice, in my bus, my car, my office, my gym, or even on the same elevator), either–but not because he’s hypercritical (as opposed to hypocritical). Usually he’s not, and even if he were, there’s something be be said for the old adage about keeping your enemies close.

I also wouldn’t ban Klein because he has been criticized for not being friendly enough toward Israel (too big a concern for many modern politicians, in my view), or because of the quality of his writing, which often is more interesting and wittier than that of many of his cohorts–even if, in overly broad but telling words of John Cook in Radar magazine, “Klein’s body of work amounts to little more than a festival of projection and poorly disguised vanity.” (And who am I, or almost any blogger, to criticize that?)

No, none of those reasons would keep Klein (with whom I often agree, by the way) as far away from me as possible. I’d keep him at a distance because I know him to be is a sneak and a liar, if not insane (though maybe no crazier than journalism as a whole). I’m guessing that literary forensics expert and Vassar College professor Don Foster feels same way, and not because of how Klein and Time butchered their coverage of FISA wiretapping rules last year. That coverage favored conservatives, incidentally, one more reason McCain might want “Joe the Columnist” on his plane.

Sixteen years ago, Klein covered Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign. Four years later, during Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign, a fictionalized version of that campaign became a bestseller during Clinton’s  at least in part because its author–listed only as “Anonymous”–provided an obvious inside look at Clinton’s life and politics. Parts of Primary Colors (which then became a popular film) the book were fictionalized, but no one knew exactly which parts, and “Guess the Author” became a favorite Washington game.

New York magazine hired Foster to crack the case, and CBS (which also employed Klein at the time) then interviewed Foster about his conclusion that Klein wrote the book (a conclusion previously reached by former Clinton speechwriter David Kusnet in the Baltimore Sun). Klein adamently denied authorship until a handwriting analysis proved that he had lied even to his bosses at CBS and Newsweek.

Klein was forced to resign from CBS, but Newsweek merely made him apologize to readers whose trust he had betrayed. Even afterward, Klein showed no meaningful remorse and had no trouble finding subsequent media gigs–no surprise, since even after Oliver North lied under oath to Congress and the American people he became a network program host, even if it was on Fox News.

So there you have it, why I as a candidate would keep Klein off of my plane–along with the likes of fellow dissemblers George Will (read my book for a further discussion of Will’s lies), Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly. Of course I also have this fantasy that if I were a candidate I’d actually talk to real reporters.

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