"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
I spent the morning working with the tenacious and resourceful Jane Hamsher on finding out exactly which Time editors were responsible for the wildly inaccurate Joe Klein FISA article. Numerous people at Time vigorously insisted they had nothing to do with it. Finally, Jane was able to ascertain that the person responsible was Time Editor Priscilla Painton.
As Jane details here, she called Painton in an attempt to find out information about how these false claims made it into Klein’s article, what Time was planning on doing to correct it and whether they would account for what happened. I happened to be conversing with Jane by video when she was finally able to speak by telephone to Painton and thus heard Jane’s end of the discussion.
The call lasted roughly 10 seconds. Jane asked one or two questions in the most polite and professional manner possible — whether Painton was Klein’s Editor and how such errors made their way into the article. As Jane describes, after she asked Painton how such inaccuracies could make it into the Time article, Painton snapped: “That assumes that there are errors.” She then slammed down the phone in Hamsher’s face.
Not even Klein contends that his article was free of factual error. He has, albeit in an extremely weaselly and conditional way, admitted that his article likely included factual errors, first blaming it on “confusion” and stating: “I may have made a mistake in my column this week about the FISA legislation passed by the House.” He further acknowledged that he “reported as fact a provision of the bill that seems to be disputable” and that he — and thus presumably Painton — “didn’t do sufficient vetting of the facts.”
Klein later (in an update to that post) tried to explain away the errors by claiming he “may have misinterpreted a Democratic source’s point about the difference between individual and ‘basket’ warrants.” Still later, he said he was incapable of figuring out if what he wrote was true and said he had no interest in spending the time to do so. None of that can be reconciled with Painton’s outrageous, clearly false insistence that the article she edited contained no errors.
Does anyone at Time have any integrity at all? They just smeared House Democrats as Terrorist-coddling national security losers to 4 million Americans based on patently false statements about the bill they passed, fed to them by Bush officials and/or GOP operatives. And now they are acting as though they are the victimized party which shouldn’t have to account for anything that happened or even answer questions about what they just did.
In her post, Jane provides contact information for Painton and it is worth using it to request politely that Painton respond meaningfully to these inquiries from citizens concerned about the falsehoods which she and Time are spewing. I would also recommend writing to Painton’s boss, Managing Editor Rick Stengel (at firstname.lastname@example.org). I sent him the following email earlier today which he has thus far ignored:
Mr. Stengel – I’m working on a comprehensive piece for Salon about the process that allowed Joe Klein to publish blatantly false statements in his FISA article. I’d like to interview you regarding this matter, including these topics:
Who edited Joe Klein’s piece? How could such unambiguously, factually false claims make it into the article, and who is responsible for correcting it? Does Time have the responsibility not only to correct mistakes like this but also, where it seems rather clearly to be the by-product of willful deceit on the part of a source, describe how it was tricked? Could you email me and let me know if you can talk and I can call you, or you can give me a call [phone number]. Thanks –
It isn’t enough to issue some obscure, clouded “correction” which creates the false impression there is some good faith dispute over what the House Democrats’ bill does and that Klein and Painton just became understandably confused about such complex legalistic issues, all accompanied by a self-justifying, shoulder-shrugging “Hey-everyone-makes-mistakes” tone. The real story here is that Joe Klein’s GOP source(s) blatantly lied to him about what this bill does in order to scare Americans into supporting George Bush’s demands for greater eavesdropping powers.
Neither Klein nor Painton bothered to verify whether anything they were told was true. Instead, they mindlessly printed it with an accompanying article smearing Democrats as weak on national security and concerned with Terrorists Rights at the expense of protecting Americans.
In other words, the same corrupt propagandistic process that has driven so much of our reckless press coverage during the Bush presidency generated these outright falsehoods. How that happened and who was responsible — as well as what Time‘s culpability is — is the real story here. That is what Time has to answer. We ought to demand those answers from Stengel and Painton. It is flatly unacceptable to print outright lies as fact in order to mislead the country on such vital political matters and then refuse to account for what really happened.
UPDATE: This episode also highlights one of the most corrupt and destructive journalistic practices — namely, the fact that establishment media outlets eagerly protect their sources even when those sources feed them outright lies in order to manipulate them into printing a false story. In theory, journalists are not supposed to protect the identity of sources who do that, but they virtually always do.
I first focused on this deeply corrupt practice when I wrote about the completely false story broadcast repeatedly in October and November, 2001 by ABC News and Brian Ross blaming Saddam Hussein for the anthrax attacks. That story was generated by an outright lie fed to ABC by neoconservative sources wishing to fuel war-hysteria against Iraq: namely, those “sources” told ABC that government tests revealed the presence of bentonite in the anthrax, one of the distinguishing “markers” of Saddam’s chemical program.
What the sources told ABC was, from start to finish, an outright, deliberate lie. Government tests never revealed any such thing. The sources lied because they wanted to manipulate Ross to do exactly what he did — namely, spend the next several days on virtually every ABC News show loudly linking Saddam to the anthrax attacks in the minds of Americans. Yet to this day, ABC News protects these lying sources and refuses to report the real story: namely, who were these individuals who lied to ABC about the anthrax test results in order to cause them to produce such a destructively fake news story? Instead, ABC insists on source confidentiality even for sources who deliberately lied to them.
That is exactly what Time is doing here. Whoever it was who told Klein that the House bill “would require the surveillance of every foreign-terrorist target’s calls to be approved by the FISA court” was lying to him, in order to manipulate Time and Klein to do exactly what they did — publish the accusation that Democrats want to extend civil liberties protections to foreign Terrorists.
Any respectable journalist would recognize that this is the real story here — that Bush officials and GOP operatives were outright lying about the House bill, and they would report on that, including revealing who did this. Instead, Time cynically hides behind the “source confidentiality” principle, a principle designed to safeguard real reporting, not to enable the dissemination of deliberate lies for propaganda purposes. By doing so, Time — just like ABC News and so many other similar outlets — becomes a willing, active participant in that deceitful process.
UPDATE II: As was discussed today in comments, House Democrats — who were the target of Time‘s false smearing — have been inexcusably silent up until now. As I indicated, I spoke with several staffers on the day I first wrote about Klein’s article, and they claimed to be livid about what was written, but failed — even when I was requesting it — to issue any public statement objecting to these falsehoods.
I am happy to see that House Intelligence Committee member Rep. Rush Holt has now written a post detailing how false were Klein’s statements about the bill he helped to draft. As Holt says of Klein’s representations about what was in the RESTORE Act: “It contains no such provision.” He also makes clear that Klein’s claim that the House rejected a bipartisan bill proposed by the House Intelligence Committee in favor of some bill engineered by “House leadership” is just complete fiction, made up out of whole cloth. It would be nice if other Congressional Democrats spoke up and objected to Time‘s false smearing of them.Thank you for your email, I appreciate your comments.
TIME Columnist Joe Klein made a reporting error, which he swiftly addressed in his blog postings on TIME.com. In addition, TIME will run a correction in his column in this week’s issue of the magazine.
Thank you very much,
In what conceivable way did Klein “swiftly address” the “reporting error” he made? He first insisted that everything he said was accurate, then said he “may” have made an error, and then finally said: “I have neither the time nor legal background to figure out who’s right.” If that constitutes “swiftly addressing” the error for Stengel, I have no doubt that the forthcoming “correction” will obfuscate far more than it will clarify or correct. And if Klein supposedly “addressed” his clear error, why is there no correction to the online version of his column?
But none of this is surprising. This is what Time always does when caught printing false statements in its magazine. Painton in particular has a history of defending outright false statements written by Klein. Additionally, Painton was the editor of the worshipful Time cover story on Ann Coulter, and — as both Eric Boehlert and Bob Somerby have noted — she then ran around praising Coulter as a wonderful, hilarious person when Time named Coulter as one of the “100 most influential people” (alongside Ariel Sharon, Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, Kim Jong Il and the Dalai Lama).
And Time itself has a long and ignoble history of promoting those responsible for the most egregiously false statements (Josh Tyrangiel — author of one of the most reckless Judy-Miller-style Iraq WMD articles — was promoted by Stengel to Time.com Editor and now bears responsibility for posting online corrections). Painton herself proudly boasts in her Time biography:
she was responsible for TIME’s political reporting as the magazine’s Nation Editor for six years, in which she helped guide readers through the the re-election of Bill Clinton in 1996, the rise and fall of Newt Gingrich, the campaign of 2000 and its vote-counting battle that led to George W. Bush’s assumption of the presidency in December of 2000.
But as Digby illustrates (literally), Time‘s history during that period tells you all you need to know about how it functions and the destructive role it plays in our political discourse.
So: Rick Stengel, Time‘s Managing Editor, is highly satisfied with Klein’s behavior — behavior which the Center for Citizen Media called “Shameful” and “Exhibit A for what’s wrong with the craft today.” Standing alone, Stengel’s defense illustrates that Joe Klein’s behavior is not at all unique to him, but is perfectly indicative of how Time itself operates.In his new memoir “No Excuses,” veteran Democratic consultant Robert Shrum says Time columnist Joe Klein doubled as a “sometime adviser,” and that the Massachusetts senator “craved his approval.”
Klein “would chastise Kerry on the phone when he didn’t like a speech, counseling both Kerry and me about what the candidate should say and what our strategy should be,” down to the kind of health care plan the senator should propose, Shrum writes.
John Kerry “craved the approval” of Joe Klein. Most Beltway journalists fear conservatives. But those same journalists intimidate, mock and step on Democrats, because they know that Democrats “crave their approval.”
Thus, the path of least resistance for media outlets is to do what Joe Klein does — loyally pass on GOP-fed smears of Democrats, because they know that conservatives will pat them on the head for it, while Congressional Democrats not named “Rush Holt” will remain passive and silent, all in the hope that by doing so, the press will like them more and treat them better next time. That’s why Rep. Holt’s aggressive response to Time‘s falsehoods today was so impressive, and so rare.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)