Time's Karen Tumulty: Unlike reporters, bloggers don't have to use proof

A reporter from one of the nation's most fact-challenged "news" magazines claims that bloggers enjoy a "luxury" her colleagues don't -- the ability to say things without evidence.

Published September 15, 2008 4:42PM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II)

Time's Karen Tumulty writes about the Barton Gellman excerpt today which I wrote about earlier this morning (Tumulty does so mostly by summarizing what Gellman wrote), and then, in comments, she addresses reader complaints about media indifference to these illegal surveillance issues over the years (as contrasted with intense blogger interest) by voicing this accusation:

While commenters like JLA seem to believe that these things are happening under the nose of the media, I think you guys underestimate the difficulty of proving things in real time. The media has no subpoena power. We are, essentially, at the mercy of sources who are brave enough to come forward. And we have to sort those out from the ones who are peddling disinformation. Rarest of all -- and usually later -- are those who are willing to put their names to the information they provide. Without that, all we usually have are hunches and suspicions and fleeting glimpses of what is going on. You point to bloggers like Glenzilla, but he has a real luxury: He makes a case; he doesn't have to prove it.

Aspects of Tumulty's general self-defense are fair enough: reporters can't report on what they don't know, and -- between the fact that the Bush administration is the most secretive in modern history, whistle-blower sources are being targeted with prosecution, and reporters are suffering from declining resources available to them (all of which she points out later on) -- much is concealed from them. And it's certainly true that many Bush secrets have been uncovered through dogged investigative reporting by establishment journalists (Dana Priest uncovering the CIA black sites, David Barstow documenting the "military analyst" program, Risen and Lichtblau disclosing the NSA program, etc.).

Still, this claim that "bloggers" (and isn't Tumulty one of those now?) simply spout off with whatever thoughts enter their brain without any need for proof, while "reporters" are subject to stringent requirements to have evidence and the like, is as common as it is self-serving and wrong (here's the Bush-appointed U.S. attorney in Denver this week arguing the same thing: that "faceless bloggers" are reckless and irresponsible and only "mainstream journalists" can save us all by re-imposing standards of truth and responsible reporting). Need I identify all of the profoundly false, mindlessly subservient claims which Tumulty's profession (and her magazine specifically) have recklessly and/or deliberately spread over the last several years -- far beyond just the Judy Millers of the world? In light of the recent history of American journalism, it never ceases to be baffling how people like Karen Tumulty can continue to make claims about the oh-so-stringent evidentiary burdens under which reporters diligently labor. If only that were true.

To begin with, before issuing those kinds of sanctimonious lectures about the stringent "proof" obligations imposed on reporters but not bloggers -- especially when writing in the context of illegal NSA programs -- Tumulty might want to review her own colleague Joe Klein's notoriously error-plagued, deeply ignorant, Pete-Hoekstra-ghost-written FISA "reporting" -- false, evidence-free "reporting" which her top editors proudly refuse, to this day, to correct (does this ring a bell: "I have neither the time nor legal background to figure out who's right"?). I recall her colleague Jay Carney scoffing at the importance of Josh Marshall's work on the U.S. attorney scandal (and then, much to his credit, subsequently admitting his error), but I also remember her magazine's top editor, Rick Stengel, going on national television and falsely claiming that neither he, Stengel, nor "voters" generally wanted to see Karl Rove subpoenaed in the U.S. attorneys investigation, even though polls conclusively proved that exactly the opposite was true, and Stengel -- even after this flagrant error was repeatedly brought to his attention -- refused (like Klein) to correct or even acknowledge his patently false, proof-free claims.

If, as Tumulty claims, bloggers are guilty of spouting as fact evidence-free assertions, then she ought to be able to identify some examples, particularly of mine with regard to the FISA issue, since she specifically cited me as someone who exploits this "luxury" that she and her upstanding, evidence-bound colleagues don't enjoy -- the "luxury" of making claims without proof. I'd love to hear some specifics to back up that accusation.

What I do recall quite vividly was that -- at a time when Tumulty herself and the rest of her colleagues had virtually no interest in the substance of Bush's FISA lawbreaking and confined themselves instead to trite and vapid articles about how these revelations might help Bush and the GOP politically (because they'll show how Tough he is on Terror) -- original reporting of mine led to the discovery of "proof" that (a) totally eviscerated the Bush administration's central excuse for their illegal eavesdropping but which (b) her reporting colleagues failed to discover on their own and which, to this day, don't comprehend the significance of, even while some of them dutifully took note of it. But (unlike the extremely lengthy list of false and fact-free claims put forth by her colleagues, both in general and at her magazine), I don't recall any assertions of mine that turned out to be false, lacking in proof, or even of dubious accuracy (or, in the case of errors of the type everyone makes, remain uncorrected), so I'd like to see some examples to corroborate this claim of hers.

I think Tumulty is, in general, a decent and well-intentioned reporter -- particularly when one considers where she's employed -- but these sorts of sloppy, "reporter"-glorifying, "blogger"-disparaging comparisons ("we're required to use facts and evidence and they're not") are without any basis in reality. They're actually the opposite of reality, because bloggers who repeatedly assert false claims will (in general) lose their credibility and readership, whereas -- as has been repeatedly demonstrated (she need only look around her own office to see it) -- Tumulty's journalistic colleagues lose nothing by doing the same thing.

UPDATE: In comments, UsedtobeKristen writes:


I asked Karen to give examples of how Glenn makes a case but doesn't have to prove it. I hope the irony of her failure to prove her own case isn't lost on her.

In exactly the same way that one who wants to mock someone else's misspellings should first make absolutely sure that one's post doing so is itself free of any misspelling, it's a really good idea to make sure your post is free of unsupported, evidence-free assertions if you want to criticize others for relying on such assertions. For Tumulty to accuse me of making claims without evidence while failing to provide any examples or links is, as the commenter points out, rather ironic.

There are many bloggers who are irresponsible and fact-free in their claims, just as many, many reporters are. Conversely, many bloggers perform ample amounts of original reporting and confine themselves to demonstrable facts, just as some reporters do. But these categorical claims about how reporters conduct themselves versus how "bloggers" do are virtually always worthless and wrong.

UPDATE II: In the comment section to this post, Tumulty responds -- here -- and my reply is here.

By Glenn Greenwald

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