New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt isn’t as flashy as Dan Okrent, the first person to hold that job. But to my mind he’s been a solid in-house critic of Times journalism, and a considerable improvement over his plodding predecessor, Byron Calame.
So I enjoyed this profile of Hoyt that appeared in an alumni publication, Columbia College Today, written by David McKay Wilson, a Northeastern classmate of mine in the 1970s. Hoyt explains his philosophy thusly:
I want to talk about how something happened so we could learn from it, instead of wagging a finger and taking a holier-than-thou approach. You also have to make sure you talk about the work, not the person. The New York Times is a great newspaper and it produces great journalism every day, under very trying circumstances. In certain cases, it doesn’t live up to those standards.
The most recent case, of course, is the paper’s botched reporting on Connecticut Senate candidate Richard Blumenthal’s exaggerations regarding his military service. Hoyt, admirably, dove right in — too early, as it turned out. Now that the story is fading away, I hope he’ll take another, more considered look.
In my latest for the Guardian, I argue that the New York Times was on to a legitimate story about Connecticut Senate candidate Richard Blumenthal’s idiotic distortions* about his military service — but that it so botched the job that the paper can no longer be considered a reliable guide on what Blumenthal has and hasn’t claimed about himself.
Yesterday I thought New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt had gotten his paper’s Richard Blumenthal reporting just about right.
Hoyt concluded that the paper had indeed exposed Connecticut’s attorney general, a Democratic Senate candidate, as being untruthful about his non-service in Vietnam. But Hoyt added that the Times should have revealed Blumenthal had also described his military service accurately earlier in the smoking video.
Now I’m just about ready to throw the Times’ reporting on Blumenthal into the swimming pool. Because it turns out that the one, weird little detail that helped bolster the larger point — that Blumenthal had lied about being on the Harvard swim team, of all things — was wrong.
Media Nation commenter Duke Briscoe recommended a Daily Howler report that, in turn, led me back to a Hartford Courant item about a series of photos posted on Facebook showing that Blumenthal had indeed been a team member. So it seems to me that we now have three major problems with the Times report:
The Times failed to report that Blumenthal accurately described his Marine Corps service just several minutes before he then wrongly said he had served in Vietnam.
One of the Times’ principal sources, Jean Risley, who chairs the Connecticut Vietnam Veterans Memorial, says she was misquoted.
The confirming detail about Blumenthal’s having lied about being on the Harvard swim team turns out not to be the case at all.
Personally, I still think Blumenthal wrongly gave the impression in that recorded speech that he had actually served in Vietnam. But the Times apparently botched this story so thoroughly it now seems likely that Blumenthal will benefit from an anti-media backlash. And unless there are more, unambiguous examples, then he probably should benefit.
I think Hoyt ought to wait for the dust to settle, then weigh in again.
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.
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.
Later this morning I’m heading to New Haven for a day of research and reporting. I don’t think I’ll be anywhere near former future senator Richard Blumenthal, who is preparing to tell Connecticut voters they should believe him rather than their own lying eyes and ears.
The poor man has spoken “thousands” of times to veterans groups. I sympathize. Under those circumstances, I could totally imagine myself slipping up once or twice and mistakenly saying I’d served as a reconnaissance officer during the first Gulf War.
Nate Silver nails it. Josh Marshall swings and misses. My personal prediction: Blumenthal won’t make it through the Democratic state convention, which is being held in Hartford this weekend. If he can somehow manage to hang on as state attorney general, he’ll be able to count himself very lucky indeed.