Blumenthal Blunders

NPR shines where the Times didn’t

Despite a congressional sex scandal and three closely watched Senate primaries, yesterday’s news was dominated by The New York Times’s harsh look at Richard Blumenthal’s Vietnam record—and, more saliently, the way he describes it. Blumenthal, Connecticut’s long-serving attorney general who is now seeking a Senate seat, served as a sergeant in the Marine reserves during the Vietnam War era, but never was deployed overseas. The Times story, written by Raymond Hernandez, suggested that he sometimes describes his service inaccurately, but more often describes it in a way that leaves the details open to aggrandizing misinterpretation.

Hernandez’s story mixes elements of two somewhat related and valuable biographical-accountability storylines that we’ve come to expect in political vetting season. The first is that of the candidate (who usually appears out of nowhere) with a grossly exaggerated or fully invented military record. The second genre is the detailed examination of a once draft-age candidate’s Vietnam service record and the deferments, National Guard service, or other privileged perches he might have held far from the firing line—see Bush and Cheney, circa 2000, 2004.

Blumenthal’s record clearly warrants the latter sort of story. A series of deferments—not just of the garden-variety student type, but also a “rare” one for civilian employment granted while he worked as an assistant to the publisher of The Washington Post—would raise many eyebrows. But Blumenthal’s purported misdeeds are not those of a fabricator, a fact that becomes all the clearer when you learn—in a line of evidence not showcased in the Times story—that his service has been accurately recorded in a wide variety of official and informal public accounts.

Instead, one section of the Times’s reporting emphasizes that the local press corps often mischaracterized the record, stating that Blumenthal had served in-country, in Vietnam. But the piece did not mention the times that the Connecticut press corps described his duty precisely by explicitly mentioning that he was in a reserve unit, or more narrowly but still technically accurately by noting that he was an ex-Marine.

NPR’s David Folkenflik has written an excellent article looking at the Connecticut press corps’s record of describing Richard Blumenthal’s military service. While it’s not a fully comprehensive survey, Folkenflik doesn’t find a single reporter who says Blumenthal mischaracterized his military biography directly to them. One of the reporters thinks that Blumenthal should have sought corrections when the press made errors.

“As journalism goes, sometimes distinctions are lost,” said one reporter who’d incorrectly wrote that Blumenthal served in Vietnam, putting the onus of the error on himself.

Folkenflik also notes that when Blumenthal has endured “serious treatments” by the press, he “appears to have invariably spoken precisely and accurately about the nature of his military service,” and that his official biographies accurately describe his service.

Folkenflik also spoke with Mark Pazniokas, who was the top political reporter for The Hartford Courant before he was laid off last year, who said that in 20 years of covering Blumenthal, he never heard him say, imply, or leave open to interpretation that he’d been overseas.

“Every time he talked about his military record, he was quite clear that he had been a military reservist and never came close to suggesting he was in Vietnam,” said Pazniokas.

All of that is vital information of the sort that should have made it into the Times’s piece, and would help readers grapple with precisely how, when, and if Blumenthal has either misstated his service record or stated it in a way that leaves it open to misinterpretation. (The Times did write that, at a recent debate, Blumenthal said that he had not served in Vietnam.)

Blumenthal’s presentation is messy here, meaning that the Times has a story. But they’re doing everyone a disservice by over-selling it.

The press record on Blumenthal’s service is messy too, perhaps even messier than the candidate’s. That confused reporting doesn’t reflect well on the reporters and editors who created it, nor on the politician and handlers who took insufficient effort (if any) to set it straight.

But, as Folkenflik’s article shows, the Times failed to present valuable context that would help voters weigh a potential candidacy-ending charge.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.