As promised, New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt responded today to the mounting criticism the paper has received for its article on Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal's description of his military service.
First, credit where credit is due, Hoyt does criticize the Times' hit piece on several fronts; given the fervor with which the paper has defended the story over the past week, Hoyt's acknowledgement that critics are correct on a number of points seems quite significant:
Were there flaws in the story? Yes: It should have said more about how it originated; it should have provided mitigating information far higher; it should have noted that his official biography was accurate. The full video should have been posted so readers could make their own judgments.
That said, Hoyt's column also ignores several key pieces of information that have come to light since the original story went to press, and even promotes a key falsehood that the Times' PR staff has used in defending the piece. Hoyt writes:
The paper cited several instances when Blumenthal made "plainly untrue" statements about his service, and posted a video excerpt of him saying in 2008, "We have learned something important since the days that I served in Vietnam." The article at the top of Tuesday's front page said that on other occasions he used ambiguous language that could have left the wrong impression.
In fact, the Times article did not cite "several instances when Blumenthal made "plainly untrue" statements about his service." While the Times article reported that "sometimes" Blumenthal's remarks have been "plainly untrue," the article cited only one such quote meeting this description: the quote Hoyt mentions above. The article also referenced two instances in which Blumenthal, according to the Times, "intimate[ed]" that he had served in Vietnam - apparently the same instances Hoyt describes as Blumenthal having used "ambiguous language that could have left the wrong impression."
Note that Hoyt's language is similar to a May 19 statement by Times spokesperson Diane McNulty which responded to criticism of the piece:
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.
As I noted at the time, this description of the Times' reporting is woefully misleading in the same way as Hoyt's commentary - it suggests that the Times article offered significantly more evidence to support its conclusions than it actually provided.
Hoyt also ignores the paper's handling of Blumenthal's association with the Harvard swim team. For two paragraphs in the middle of an article on whether Blumenthal's descriptions of his military service have been misleading, the Times out of nowhere reports that while Hartford Courant and Slate profiles of Blumenthal state that he was captain of the Harvard swim team, "Records at the college show that he was never on the team." The tangent seemingly serves no purpose other than to suggest Blumenthal is a pathological liar.
First of all, the Times' suggestion that Blumenthal is responsible for the accuracy of media profiles is bizarre. The article reports that "Mr. Blumenthal said he did not provide the information to reporters, was unsure how it got into circulation and was 'astonished' when he saw it in print," and provides no evidence to the contrary. Blumenthal's statement is bolstered by the Slate reporter's subsequent comment that the Harvard captain claim had "definitely not" come from Blumenthal or his staff. The Courant reporter "said that, without looking at her notes or the tapes of the extensive interviews she conducted with Blumenthal in 2003, she has no way of knowing for sure whether Blumenthal gave her the information, or whether he confirmed it."
Moreover, the Courant has since reported that Peter Alter, who was captain of the swim team the year after Blumenthal graduated, says that Blumenthal was on the team. The Courant further reported that a conservative think-tank has posted a photo from the 1964 Harvard College yearbook which "shows Blumenthal participating in a Harvard swim meet his freshman year."
The Times seems to have reported on a long-time myth about Blumenthal - which there is no evidence he started - and contrasted it with inaccurate information about Blumenthal's actual record, with the effect of making Blumenthal look like a liar. Hoyt never mentions this portion of the article.
Hoyt also does not acknowledge that Connecticut's political reporters, by and large, believe that Blumenthal did not have a widespread pattern of misleading about his service record. As I noted earlier in the week:
The Hartford Courant's Colin McEnroe contacted political journalists throughout the state, and with one exception, none stated that they had ever heard Blumenthal say that he served in Vietnam.
For example, Connecticut Mirror's Mark Pazniokas -- who McEnroe states "may have covered Blumenthal more often than anybody else" -- says that "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."
If, as the Times claimed, Blumenthal had a "long and well established pattern of misleading his constituents about his Vietnam War service," one would think that the people that cover him every day would have noticed.