Sticking to His Guns: Sedition Charges and the Journalistic Ethics of Time’s Joe Klein

One of the things taught in journalism schools, at least when it comes crime reporting, is that when someone charged with a crime, you carefully craft your rhetoric because in the United States, you're presumed innocent until proven guilty.

But what if you're journalist and you're making accusations of crime where there's not even a charge? On NBC's April 18 "The Chris Matthews Show," Time magazine's Joe Klein accused former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Fox News host Glenn Beck of rubbing "right up close to being seditious," which according to the U.S. Code is rubbing right up close to being a crime. And even after the fact, Klein has stuck to his guns and didn't back down from that accusation.

"On the Chris Matthews Show Sunday, I said that some of the right-wing infotainment gasbags--people like Glenn Beck etc.--were nudging up close to the edge of sedition," Klein wrote in an April 19 post on Time.com's Swampland blog. "This has caused a bit of a self-righteous ruckus on the right. Let me be clear: dissent isn't sedition. Questioning an Administration's policies isn't sedition. But questioning an Administration's legitimacy in a manner intended to undermine or overthrow it certainly is."

But do these accusations from Klein, along with New York magazine's John Heilemann, rub right up close to being journalistically unethical? By definition, since sedition is as categorized as a crime and based on the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics language on criminal reporting, reporters should "minimize harm" and "ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect," including:

- Be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.
- Balance a criminal suspect's fair trial rights with the public's right to be informed.

But despite Klein's edging up to the lines of journalistic malpractice, based on these well-defined standards, it is also curious that he would accuse Beck and Palin, along with Heilemann accusing conservative talker Rush Limbaugh, of the same charges the Obama administration is pressing against the Hutaree, a so-called Christian militia based out of Michigan.