The New York Times is standing by its report that Connecticut Democratic Senatorial candidate Richard Blumenthal repeatedly misled or misspoke about his service (or lack thereof) in Vietnam. But as questions mount over whether the piece included proper context, a spokesperson for the publication declined to say whether or not the reporter actually viewed the entirety of Blumenthal's most controversial remark.
On Monday evening the Times reported that Blumenthal had exaggerated his service in Vietnam at various points in his career. The paper focused first and foremost on a video clip from March 2008 in which the Connecticut Attorney General discussed "the days I served in Vietnam." Blumenthal, in actuality, never saw combat after having received five deferments and an assignment in the military reserves.
By Wednesday, however, criticisms had emerged with the Times piece. The Associated Press reported that earlier in that same speech, Blumenthal had described himself as "someone who served in the military during the Vietnam era in the Marine Corps" -- a more accurate rendering of his history.
Considering the very public acknowledgment from Blumenthal's opponent,
Linda McMahon, that she had helped with the research for the Times piece, questions arose about whether the paper had handled the reporting process fairly. (UPDATE: McMahon acknowledged on Wednesday night that her campaign helped the paper with research).
In an email to the Huffington Post, the paper's spokesperson, Diane McNulty, offered the official statement defending the article.
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.
The video doesn't change our story. Saying that he served "during Vietnam" doesn't indicate one way or the other whether he went to Vietnam.
But when asked whether or not she could confirm that the reporter, Ray Hernandez, had actually seen the entirety of the 2008 video before writing the article, McNulty declined to address the question, framing it as a non-issue.
"Saying that he served "during Vietnam" doesn't negate his later statement. It doesn't indicate one way or the other whether he went to Vietnam," she wrote in one email.
"The longer version of the video doesn't change the story," she added in a follow up email. "Saying that he served "during Vietnam" does not contradict or override his later, more specific, statement that he served in Vietnam."
As McNulty's notes illustrate, the question over how Blumenthal represented his service has quickly boiled down to a semantics debate. The Times sees the earlier statement from the 2008 speech as a distinction without a difference -- regardless of whether he said he served "during" or "in" Vietnam, he still misled.
But for critics of the paper, the decision to not include the full context of the speech was a disservice to both Blumenthal and the readers. Perhaps the Attorney General would not have been spared criticism. But including the earlier comment would have provided the option of allowing readers to determine if he was being misleading or had fumbled with his speaking.
As more reporting trickles in, the answer seems to be edging closer to the latter. On Wednesday, The Hartford Courant did an examination of the articles it wrote on Blumenthal and those written by the state's larger dailies. It located only four stories in the past decade in which he was described as having actually served in Vietnam -- three of those didn't involve statements from Blumenthal himself.
The dearth of more evidence doesn't absolve Blumenthal of those times when he did misspeak or mislead (he has an obligation, after all, to correct the written record). But it has provided windows for media critics to question the Times initial story.
"The whole article, as I have written before, seemed like weak journalism with very little meat on its bones," wrote Colin McEnroe of the Courant. "There was one 'smoking gun' -- the Norwalk clip. The rest of the story relied heavily on implication and suggestion and the vague claim that the idea of Blumenthal's service in Vietnam was a widely accepted part of his 'public biography.'"
The Columbia Journalism Review's Clint Hendler, meanwhile, suggests the Times erred by not noting that the Connecticut press corps and Blumenthal himself were more often than not sincere and accurate with his Vietnam-service description.
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.