New York Times blunders on Blumenthal

Richard Blumenthal

It’s now clear that the New York Times was sloppy in its report on Connecticut Senate candidate Richard Blumenthal. Maybe the fact that he told the truth about his Vietnam-era military service doesn’t negate his saying something totally misleading a few minutes later. But the Times should have gotten out the whole story at once. You can consider me one Times reader who feels manipulated this morning.

To review: On Monday night, the Times posted a story reporting that Blumenthal had, on several occasions, falsely claimed to have served in Vietnam when he was in the Marine Corps. “We have learned something important since the days that I served in Vietnam,” he said at a speech in 2008. Weirdly, the Times also reported that he’d apparently misled people about having been captain of the Harvard swim team. In fact, he was never a member.

Yesterday, in a follow-up, the Times reported that former congressman Chris Shays had grown increasingly uneasy over the years as he watched Blumenthal transform himself from a humble Vietnam-era veteran into someone who had actually served in the war. “He just kept adding to the story, the more he told it,” Shays was quoted as saying.

But then, later yesterday, the tide turned. The Associated Press reported that Blumenthal truthfully described his military service in the same speech in which he said “I served in Vietnam.” In the opening moments of the speech, he correctly described himself as “as someone who served in the military during the Vietnam era.”

How important is this latest development? I don’t know. We already knew that Blumenthal had often told the truth about his service, but that he had also, on occasion, allowed his audiences to believe he’d been in Vietnam. But to do both in the same speech? That suggests that maybe, as he said at a defiant news conference on Tuesday, it really was just “a few misplaced words.”

I don’t want to let Blumenthal off the hook. I think anyone who watches the full video clip would come away thinking he had served in Vietnam. But Times journalists should have moved heaven and earth to make sure they had investigated this thoroughly, especially since they were relying on a dime-drop from the campaign of Republican candidate Linda McMahon.

Democrats have apparently rallied around Blumenthal, the state attorney general, in advance of this weekend’s state convention. Blumenthal’s poll numbers have plummeted, but they may bounce back if he can create the perception that he has been wronged by the media. To that end, this story by NPR on the media’s role in perpetuating half-true stories about Blumenthal may help him.

In a statement to Politico, New York Times spokeswoman Diane McNulty said:

The New York Times in its reporting uncovered Mr. Blumenthal’s long and well established pattern of misleading his constituents about his Vietnam War service, which he acknowledged in an interview with The Times. Mr. Blumenthal needs to be candid with his constituents about whether he went to Vietnam or not, since his official military records clearly indicate he did not.

Trouble is, when you find yourself defending your reporting to other news organizations, that’s usually a pretty good indication that something went wrong. The Times had a perfectly good — and, I would argue, devastating — story about Blumenthal’s misleading statements regarding his military service.

By letting others reveal the existence of potentially exculpatory material, the paper now finds itself playing defense.

Update: The Stamford Advocate reports that Blumenthal, at the city’s Veterans Day parade in 2008, said, “I wore the uniform in Vietnam and many came back & to all kinds of disrespect. Whatever we think of war, we owe the men and women of the armed forces our unconditional support” (via Greg Sargent). More interesting quotes from Shays, too. I suspect we’re going to find that the Times took a perfectly legitimate story and blew it by not nailing everything down ahead of time.

Photo by Sage Ross via Wikimedia Commons.

15 thoughts on “New York Times blunders on Blumenthal

  1. BP Myers

    Even more distressing to me than his (maybe) purposefully misleading people about his military service is his perpetuating the urban myth that Vietnam Veterans were almost universally mistreated when they came home, spat upon and called baby killers. That is patently untrue.

  2. L.K. Collins

    What’s this? The press telling half stories and stories out of context?

    I’m shocked, truly shocked.

    And that our host Dan, here, has been part of it?

    Shocking too.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      Of course, the other day @L.K.’s only complaint was that I didn’t refer to him as Democrat Senate candidate Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat who’s been a lifelong Democrat and who hopes to replace retiring Democrat Chris Dodd, who’s also a Democrat.

  3. R.J. Lewis

    I think you’re being overly punitive of the NY Times on this one, Dan. Blumenthal’s version of “the truth” in that same speech was still fairly misleading, in that — combined with his patently false statements — the comments would STILL leave observers believing he served in Vietnam. It’s not like he said, clearly, during that speech, “Just to be clear, folks, I never served in Vietnam.” On the contrary, he said he served in the military during the Vietnam era. Even that phrasing, while literally true, is highly suggestive of combat service. That is the true context here. Therefore, to me, the story is as valid as ever. You can tell the truth 10 times, but if you flat out lie about something this important even once (and he actually did so multiple times apparently), that’s good enough for me. The Times nailed it in my opinion. The bar should be set at truth. The Times need not spend a lot of ink talking about all the instances in which he told the truth. No one cares — especially if his true statements were in the context of a speech in which he lied.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @R.J.: Your argument is refuted by what is happening. The Times was given a perfectly legitimate story, but then handed a sword to Blumenthal and his defenders by not nailing down every angle. I don’t think the public editor will be impressed.

  4. Nice piece Dan which I think pretty well sums up what’s happened here. Personally, I’d say the NYT’s error was in the style of piece it choose to run. Since it had wrung a quote from Blumenthal that he had “misspoken”, then a straight news story with that as the lead would have been more powerful. Instead, as you point out, they went with a feature-ish lede and piece that bungled the context, appears partial in both respects of the word and may let Blumenthal off the hook, assuming there’s a hook for him to get off.

  5. Sean Griffin

    Remember when the Times jumped the gun on McCain’s “relationship” with a female lobbyist? Sloppy. This is more of the same. McCain was the Republican candidate for president. I see that I have buried his party affiliation in the fourth sentence. My apologies.

  6. L.K. Collins

    If you look closely Dan at my comment, is was the promonence of the portrayal of political affiliation for one and the down-playing of the affiliation in the other.

    Merely pointing out the (not-so-subtle) bias that you spin into your musings on a regular basis.

    On the NYT/Blumenthal issue, Dan, it is interesting to watch you jump all over a story and proclaim it from the highest tower that your academic seat allows, and the next day find fault with it after you have given it some thought and picked up that others are not as enthusiastic about the coverage as you have been.

    Is stream of consciousness a viable tool for the serious journalist, let alone a journalism professor?

    The contrast is what reader may wish to focus on.

    …Just a casual critique of a media’s critic’s offerings.

  7. R.J. Lewis

    I hear you Dan. But I disagree that “what is happening” proves the Times botched the story. It’s impossible for a paper to nail down “every” angle when the protagonist’s only possible reaction to the story is damage/spin control. That’s like saying Roll Call didn’t cover all the angles on the Larry Craig arrest story because they didn’t report on the use of “wide stances” in airport men’s rooms.
    “What is happening” seems like a classic case of the local/state media scraping egg off their faces and insisting the Times story was wrong or overdone to perform CYA. Nothing I’ve seen refutes the clear fact that Blumenthal seemingly lied his ass off. For example, some are pointing to the fact that the dime was dropped by the GOP. Totally irrelevant. A newspaper is only being manipulated if the tip is a half-truth or erroneous. In this case, the dude lied, and admitted it — at least at first.
    (Disclosure: I should’ve noted earlier for folks that I’m a former NYT employee, but never a Times reporter/editor)

  8. Rob Goodwin

    Sorry Dan, I think you’re blowing this one. I came to the site and was happy to see the headline, then I read the post and was dissapointed. As of now the evidence points to one instance of claiming to have been in Vietnam. The problem is he began the very same speech by noting he served in the Reserves. This whole story is bogus.

  9. BP Myers

    @R.J. Lewis says: That’s like saying Roll Call didn’t cover all the angles on the Larry Craig arrest story because they didn’t report on the use of “wide stances” in airport men’s rooms.

    Damn you for making me confirm that.

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