Klein was born in Queens (Rockaway Beach), New York, the son of Miram (née Warshauer) and John Klein, a printer. His maternal grandfather was professional musician Frank Warshauer. He has referred to his heritage as Jewish.
Klein graduated from the Hackley School and the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in American civilization. In 1969 Klein began reporting for the Essex County Newspapers, and The Peabody Times in Peabody, Massachusetts In 1972 he reported for Boston’s WGBH, and until 1974 he was also the news editor for The Real Paper in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was a contributing editor for Rolling Stone from 1975 to 1980, and Washington bureau chief from 1975 to 1977. He became friends with actor–director Tom Laughlin after interviewing him for Rolling Stone and appeared briefly as a reporter in Laughlin’s 1977 film Billy Jack Goes to Washington.
Klein published Woody Guthrie: A Life in 1980 and Payback: Five Marines After Vietnam in 1984. He was a political columnist for New York from 1987 to 1992, winning the Peter Kihss Award for his reporting on the 1989 race for mayor of New York. In May 1992 he joined Newsweek and wrote the column “Public Lives,” which won a National Headliner Award in 1994. Newsweek also won a National Magazine Award for their coverage of Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory. From 1992 to 1996 he was also a consultant for CBS News, providing commentary.
In December 1996 he joined The New Yorker to write the Letter from Washington column. In 2000 he published The Running Mate, a sequel of sorts to Primary Colors. In March 2002 Klein published The Natural: Bill Clinton’s Misunderstood Presidency, an account of Clinton’s two terms in office.
In January 2003, he joined Time to write a column called In the Arena on national and international affairs. It appears in Time’s upfront Notebook section and has been criticized for its reporting about then–minority leader Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic opposition to warrantless wiretapping. The column has been the source of several retractions by Time.
Klein is a regular blogger on time.com’s Swampland blog. In November 2007, Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald wrote about what he alleged were factual errors in a Klein story about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Klein reported that the Democratic version of the FISA bill “would require the surveillance of every foreign-terrorist target’s calls to be approved by the FISA court” and that it therefore “would give terrorists the same legal protections as Americans.” Time later published a comment: “In the original version of this story, Joe Klein wrote that the House Democratic version of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) would allow a court review of individual foreign surveillance targets. Republicans believe the bill can be interpreted that way, but Democrats don’t.” Greenwald noted that the text of the legislation does not require court review of individual targets, and that Time’s response disregards this fact. Klein’s response was, “I have neither the time nor legal background to figure out who’s right.”
Later, Greenwald reported that Time “refused the requests of two sitting members of Congress … to correct Klein’s false statements in Time itself.” Greenwald has reported that Senator Russ Feingold has been informed by Time that his letter rebutting Klein will be published in a forthcoming issue.
In October 2012 Klein was criticized by Glenn Greenwald for revealing on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program his advocacy of U.S. drone strikes. Klein dismissed child deaths caused by drones in the countries where they are operating, stating that the bottom line in the end was to ask “whose 4-year-olds get killed? What we’re doing is limiting the possibility that 4-year-olds here will get killed by indiscriminate acts of terror.”
In a June 2013 cover story for Time magazine, Klein reported on Oklahoma tornado relief, but came under fire for implying secular humanists did not help deliver aid. Klein later clarified he only meant to refer to “organized” secular humanist groups, a claim that was also contested and called inaccurate.
In October 2014 Klein traveled to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for his article in Time magazine titled “Shut down in Tuscaloosa.” Klein interviewed a small number of academics from the University of Alabama. Klein’s article came under fire from the focus group he interviewed due to allegations of misquotes, improper citations, and wrong names used in the interview.