In his recent cover story for TIME magazine titled “Can Service Save Us?“, Joe Klein got something wrong.
Hey, it happens.
I happened to be in Oklahoma City when I saw the article. I had the privilege of meeting with some secular humanists there who organized volunteers, resources, and blood drives, teamed with local businesses to feed relief volunteers, and drove bulk donations around the city to distribution centers after the tornadoes. They drove backhoes into neighborhoods to clear rubble and get the rebuilding started, took people into their own homes, fed them and clothed them.
I told them about the efforts of the secular humanist organization I direct, including partnering with the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma to put 100,000 meals in the hands of the survivors of the storms. Foundation Beyond Belief, Atheists Giving Aid, Oklahoma Atheists, the Atheist Community of Tulsa, the Lawton Area Secular Society, the Norman Naturalism Group, FreeOK, the Oklahoma State Secular Organization — the response from the secular humanist and atheist community was overwhelming. Some gave money (nearly a quarter million dollars in ten days), and others gave untold time and energy.
But Joe didn’t describe our efforts in his article.
That’s fine. I mean my goodness, you can’t name every single group that helped out, be reasonable. But unlike other organizations that he didn’t name, Joe went out of his way to specifically say that our organizations were not there:
But there was an occupying army of relief workers, led by local first responders, exhausted but still humping it a week after the storm, church groups from all over the country — funny how you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals…
I’d say it’s funny how you don’t see what you don’t look for.
These atheist and humanist contributions to the disaster relief effort were not hard to find. A five-second Google search turns up almost every one of them. But Klein checked only his assumptions and biases, and in so doing reinforced the assumptions and biases of his readers — just about the most shameful thing a journalist can do. Even the time-honored test of substituting another subgroup (“funny how you don’t see any organized groups of Jews/blacks/women handing out meals” etc.) should have been enough to slap the sleeping journalist awake in Klein’s head, pushing his cursor the scant few inches needed to open the browser of his choice and see whether that thing he assumed was true was actually true.
After being flooded with indignant emails for a few days, Joe posted what he must have seen as a clarification under the darkly snarky title “Secular Humanist Watch.” He didn’t say there weren’t any secular humanists in the relief effort, you see. He said there weren’t organized groups of secular humanists. He then tangents into an irrelevant discourse on his own beliefs and mis-defines atheism and secular humanism before restating the whopper:
[I]t is certainly true, as my critics point out, that secular humanists, including atheists, can be incredibly generous. I never meant to imply they weren’t. But they are not organized.
This is the jump from carelessness to the lie. He had just been flooded with proof that there was a large, organized secular humanist and atheist presence in the relief effort. Instead of apologizing for a careless error, he opted for an outrageous doubling down. And now, instead of focusing on the good work we’re trying to do, we have to complain, something that further reinforces stereotypes. I hate that.
Here’s the apology that a person of character and integrity might have made:
In my recent TIME cover story on service, I said that you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists giving out meals after a disaster. Apparently this is not at all true. To be honest, it’s something I thought was true. I am accustomed to seeing religious organizations on the scene, as well as non-sectarian NGOs, but I was not aware that secular humanist organizations have also been present — not just as individuals, but as part of the organized, collective effort to diminish suffering and heal a broken community. This was news to me, and good news at that. With a little more care, I could have brought that news to my readers and enhanced the story.
As it turns out, it would have been quite easy to discover this fact. I simply didn’t think this particular claim needed checking. I was wrong about that, and for that I am sorry.
I’m particularly troubled to realize that my claim disregarded the hard work and dedication of real people who opened their hearts to the victims of the tragedy in Oklahoma, just as their religious friends and neighbors had opened their hearts. I erased these folks, and worse still, reinforced the popular mistrust that exists against them. That is simply not okay.
I briefly considered writing a follow-up that defended my statement on technical grounds, noting that I said there were no organized secular humanist groups, or something to that effect. But I quickly realized that this was just as untrue as the original statement, and that it was more important at any rate to reverse the harm done than to defend my own work.
So thanks to those of you who corrected me on this. I’m always glad to learn something new. It keeps me growing as a journalist and as a human being.