Anonymity OK for novels, not sources

After nearly 35 years in television and print journalism, Time magazine’s Joe Klein has some real concerns about what he sees as the tenuous position of America’s supposedly nonpartisan and non-ideological press.

“We in the mainstream media are in a very vulnerable position right now,” Klein said in a recent interview at the magazine’s Washington bureau.

chris costa
Time magazine’s Joe Klein: “We in the mainstream media are in a very vulnerable position right now.”


“We’re going to have to be very careful about the way we do our business.”

The 58-year-old author of the sensational 1996 political novel Primary Colors cited a number of factors behind the current situation — including the overuse of anonymous sources and confusing balanced reporting with objectivity.

“A lot of times, especially on television, there is this kind of false balance where one side says, ‘The sky is blue,’ the other side says, ‘No, the sky is red,’” he said. “And you have to give ‘the sky is red’ as much credibility as ‘the sky is blue’ just because one side or the other said it. That’s nonsense. We have a job to seriously analyze the world and to figure out what comes closest to approximating the truth.”

And, of course, Klein is troubled by the media’s response to the proliferation of blogs. Although Klein is an avid blog-reader (“No day is complete without checking in on Andrew Sullivan or Mickey Kaus or a couple of the others”), he believes the media must “be a lot more aggressive in vetting the blogosphere, which seems to have absolutely no responsibility at all and traffics in pure vitriol.”

Nevertheless, Klein does see hopeful signs in some segments of the new media, including Jon Stewart’s iconoclastic “The Daily Show.” “I love ‘The Daily Show,’” he admitted. “I think that their critique of the media is right on, in terms of our pomposity, our vapidity and the lack of courage that we sometimes display in fairly analyzing stuff.”

Just the same, Klein said, “You can’t get all of your news from Jon Stewart, especially since it’s a comedy show.”

Klein knows a great deal about the medium of television. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1968 with a degree in American civilization, one of Klein’s first jobs was as a reporter with WGBH-TV in Boston.

“In those days,” he recalled, “everything was politics. It’s very different from now. I got into journalism because I came of age in the ’60s. … It just seemed one way for me to get things done.”

Klein also has a great deal of experience in the print medium. In 1975, Rolling Stone hired him as Washington bureau chief and contributing editor, a position he held for five years. Klein later wrote for a number of publications, including New York magazine, before he signed on with Newsweek in 1992 to write the “Public Lives” column.

In his first months at Newsweek, Klein spent a great deal of time covering the presidential primaries and the general election that sent Bill Clinton to the White House. “I lived the ’92 campaign,” he said.

Klein parlayed this experience on the hustings of New Hampshire into literary success. In 1996, he anonymously penned the best-selling political novel loosely based on the Clinton campaigns, Primary Colors. The book’s success — it was later made into a movie — came as a great surprise to the author.

Klein relayed the story of Newsweek chief Maynard Parker’s reaction to an advance copy of the book.

“He said, ‘This is a lot of fun, Joe, but you realize people don’t buy novels like this. These things never sell.’” The book’s publisher, Random House, agreed and cut down a proposed first printing of 100,000 copies just before the book was released.

So when Primary Colors stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for 25 weeks, Klein “was shocked, really shocked by the level of interest that it aroused.

“The first thing I expected from the White House was people to say, ‘Whoever wrote this book doesn’t know about these folks.’ On the contrary, there were people in the White House who started accusing each other of having written it. And so I was saying to myself, ‘God, how close did I come?’”

As far as the relationship between Bill and Hillary Clinton, he says, “I invented the psychological histories and the relationship between Jack and Susan Stanton. I didn’t know anything about the Clintons. I don’t know more about the Clintons’ marriage than you do.”

In 1998, Klein was outed as the anonymous author and soon found himself the target of criticism by many journalists. Seven years later, he bristles at the suggestion that there are any parallels with the emergence of Mark Felt as “Deep Throat.”

“Let’s clear this up right now,” he declares. “Anonymous sources are a practice of American journalism in the 20th and 21st century, a relatively recent practice. The literary tradition of anonymity goes back to the Bible.”

He added, “Novel writing should never be confused with journalism. Unfortunately, in the case of Primary Colors, a fair number of journalists confused” the two.

Klein continued to write fiction, publishing The Running Mate in 2000, which is a follow-up to Primary Colors. He is based primarily in New York, where he lives with his wife and two children (he has two adult sons from a previous marriage).

In 2000, Klein began writing a column for The New Yorker, and since January 2003 he has written the “In the Arena” column for Time. It covers issues both international and domestic, and he is as likely to interview Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus as he is to dissect Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) presidential chances for 2008.

He also provided on-air analysis for CNN through the 2004 presidential election and appears frequently on the Sunday TV interview programs.

And if his plans pan out, Klein won’t stop reporting any time soon.

“The reason why I keep doing this … when I could just spend all of my time writing novels is that the educational part of this job is the most fun. To me, journalism is the best way to get an education.”