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.