What at first appeared to be a potentially career-ending New York Times exposé of Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal has generated a messy fight between the newspaper, Blumenthal’s liberal supporters, and his leading Republican rival for the Senate over the story’s accuracy and origins.
And, as the Times’ ombudsman tries to sort through a series of conflicting claims and grievances against the backdrop of this weekend’s state party conventions, none of the combatants appear to be backing down.
Supporters of Blumenthal have accused the Times of running an incomplete, misleading and even error-ridden story that said Blumenthal has repeatedly and falsely implied that he served in Vietnam, when in fact he served stateside in the Marine Corps Reserve after receiving five military deferments.
Blumenthal’s supporters criticized the paper for shaving away nuance and exculpatory evidence in an effort to produce an explosive blockbuster – a charge echoed by journalism critics – and have cast the story as an opposition research hit piece driven by Linda McMahon, Blumenthal’s leading GOP rival in the race for the Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Chris Dodd.
McMahon’s campaign is proudly defending its role in providing the Times with the opposition research that was the basis for the most compelling piece of evidence in its story. And her team is pushing back against efforts to both minimize its involvement by the Times and suggestions by political analysts that the campaign erred in taking credit for the piece.
A McMahon campaign source boasted to POLITICO that if McMahon finishes this weekend’s convention ahead of her chief rival for the GOP nomination, former Rep. Rob Simmons, “a big part of the reason will have been our strategic decision to put our fingerprints on this story – a story that we were involved with.”
Meanwhile, the Times reporters and editors behind the story have stood by it and seem to be doubling down, publishing a follow-up Friday afternoon detailing a 2007 speech unearthed by the weekly Milford (Conn.) Mirror in which Blumenthal appeared to suggest he served in Vietnam. And Times executive editor Bill Keller asserted in a Thursday response to the paper’s ombudsman, public editor Clark Hoyt, that the firestorm generated by the first story proves its significance.
“The leading candidate for the United States Senate seat from Connecticut embellished his military record, and admitted it,” Keller wrote in an email to Hoyt’s office. “That seems to me a pretty important piece of information — and everyone, including the Blumenthal campaign, has certainly been reacting to it as such,” read Keller’s email, which was provided by the Times to POLITICO.
Hoyt is expected to publish a column Sunday detailing the findings of his investigation, for which he has reached out to the Blumenthal and McMahon campaigns, as well as Jean Risley, the chairwoman of Connecticut Vietnams Memorial, Inc. and a Blumenthal ally who alleged the Times misquoted her saying that Blumenthal had claimed to have served in Vietnam.
Keller’s email to Hoyt appears to respond to specific questions about the sourcing of the story and whether it fairly placed in context Blumenthal’s words, or justified the front-page above-the-fold placement and 2,121 words dedicated to it in Tuesday’s paper.
“It deserved prominent display. The story had to be fairly long to do justice to both our information and the Blumenthal campaign's response,” Keller explained, describing what he said was the “extensive, independent reporting” that went into the story.
“The idea that our story originated or was sold to us by the McMahon campaign is just plain false,” declared Keller.
And Times spokeswoman Diane McNulty emphasized in an interview with POLITICO that “no one has asked for a correction” on any aspect of the story (though Blumenthal’s advisors tell POLITICO they’re working on a detailed correction request), asserting “We stand by our story.”
When the story first posted on the Times’ website Monday night, it seemed possible it could have as much impact as recent Times political-career enders. But it did not produce the tsunami of public reaction that swamped New York’s last two governors, Eliot Spitzer (caught in prostitution ring) and David Patterson (who allegedly helped quash a domestic abuse case against a top aide).
Instead the story has caused a backlash similar to the reaction to the paper’s story suggesting that 2008 GOP presidential candidate John McCain had an affair with a lobbyist, which was so widely condemned that it did little damage to McCain.
Like McCain, Blumenthal denounced the Vietnam story, though he admitted in a Tuesday press conference that he’d he'd "misspoken" a few times about serving in Vietnam – an explanation similar to the one he offered the Times for its story.
And like McCain’s allies, Blumenthal’s defenders have focused on a handful of process complaints and aspects of the Blumenthal story they say are incomplete, misleading or inaccurate and have pushed back on them hard in the blogosphere and with reporters who might have been inclined to follow the story.
In addition to Risley’s alleged misquote and McMahon’s role, Blumenthal’s allies – and journalists – have hit the Times story for:
-- stating that Blumenthal falsely claimed he was captain of the Harvard swim team (they say he never claimed to be captain and are touting a Hartford Courant blog post making the case that Blumenthal was on the freshman team
-- suggesting that he enrolled in the Marine Corps Reserve because his occupational deferment was in jeopardy (they say the type of deferment he had was specifically exempted from an executive order issued by President Richard Nixon ending such deferments)
-- failing to adequately detail examples of instances when Blumenthal accurately characterized his service in his official biographies, in-depth media biographies, and most speeches, which they say greatly outnumber the instances in which he misstated his military record.
Blumenthal’s allies got a helpful – if unintentional – boost from their main rival, when McMahon, a former professional wrestling executive, briefly featured on her campaign website a blog post crediting her opposition researchers with passing on to the Times a video recording of a March 2008 speech in which Blumenthal recalled “the days that I served in Vietnam.”
That passage, which was prominently mentioned at the beginning of the Times story, was the most compelling piece of evidence against Blumenthal and was featured in a video posted on the Times’ website. But both the story and the web video excluded a passage from earlier in the speech in which Blumenthal accurately characterized his military service by saying that he “served in the military during the Vietnam era in the Marine Corps.”
McMahon’s campaign posted on YouTube a more complete video of the speech including the accurate characterization, which the Associated Press detailed in a story that prompted Blumenthal’s supporters to question whether the Times had the full video of the speech and, if so, why the story didn’t mention the earlier characterization.
“That’s awfully misleading, isn’t it?” wrote Jamison Foser, a senior fellow at the liberal press watchdog Media Matters. “Given that Republican Linda McMahon’s campaign has taken credit for feeding the Times the Blumenthal story, you have to wonder if it gave the Times the incomplete video, as well. Either way, the Times should explain why it chose to omit Blumenthal’s correct characterization of his service.”
In his emailed response to ombudsman Hoyt, Keller asserted that “Blumenthal's statement early in the event that he ‘served in the military during the Vietnam era in the Marine Corps’ says nothing about whether he served in Vietnam or stateside, and says nothing about whether he served in the reserves or active military. It does not contradict his later statement that he served ‘in Vietnam.’”
Though Keller conceded that video of the March 2008 speech “were being circulated by a number of people in politics, including McMahon's campaign,” he wrote, “we did not rely on that material. Instead, we obtained a DVD of the full Blumenthal speech from a source not connected with the McMahon campaign, and reviewed the entire event and made sure it hadn't been unfairly spliced, edited or doctored.”
Ed Patru, McMahon’s campaign spokesman, said the Times “independently located an original version of that video, which it needed to do in order to examine the footage and properly authenticate it” – but only after Team McMahon shared with them a copy. Still, he said, the lead Times reporter on the story, Raymond Hernandez, “initiated the report, and he researched, wrote and broke the story.”
And he added “campaigns routinely share research, but good reporters always verify items independently before they report them out. Obviously, Hernandez did that here with the video footage and it’s part of the reason that this report is so watertight and so explosive.”
But Blumenthal campaign consultant Marla Romash brushed off concerns about the story’s impact on Blumenthal’s prospects. "People in Connecticut know Dick Blumenthal and they know his record of service to them and to our nation,” she said.