The funny thing about transparency…

…is that it works both ways.

The story of Richard Blumenthal and the way he “misspoke” (or “lied” or “mischaracterized”, depending upon whom you ask) when it came to his Vietnam-era service record has to do not just with politics, but to a greater extent, with problematic journalism.  Misrepresentation by someone believed to be trustworthy is the issue — whether that’s a politician or a newspaper.

(By way of background: Blumenthal is the Attorney General in Connecticut, a Democrat, and is running for the Senate seat soon-to-be vacated by Chris Dodd. Linda McMahon, who helped create World Wrestling Entertainment, is the front-runner on the Republican side.  I was, until January, a journalist in Connecticut for more than eight years.)

The New York Times came out swinging, and I count two strikes against them.

First, what that paper failed to disclose in its story posted Monday night, is what his opponent’s staff volunteered shortly after it ran: That the campaign did the research, and not only gave The New York Times the tip but the video clip to run along with it.  (See Kevin Rennie’s post, plus the rare quick-to-assume-responsibility McMahon campaign spokesman in the CTMirror.org and now McMahon’s beaming confirmation on Courant.com.)

The Times had a responsibility to its readers to disclose how it obtained its primary sourcing material when its supplier is an integral part of the story.  The video clip should be treated no differently than a discovered document.  In this case, that person worked for Blumenthal’s major opponent and stands to gain hugely by an above-the-fold attack during campaign season.

Even if a journalist does not want to identify that source by name, failure to mention that it was delivered by a political opponent can leave readers with the impression that the Times did the reporting of the story entirely by itself.  In fact, when asked directly about that on the public radio show The Takeaway, which regularly collaborates with the Times, NYT reporter Raymond Hernandez denied the campaign’s (already admitted) role.

(And by Wednesday, the entire videotaped speech in question emerged, circulated by the Blumenthal camp, and as the AP reports, the candidate correctly stated his service at its beginning.  Also released: A poll taken immediately after the report surfaced has chopped ten percentage points off Blumenthal’s lead, putting him just three points ahead.)

Second swing and a miss for the Times came with an official response, seen here in a Huffington Post story.  In an email, a spokeswoman for the Times told reporters:

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…”

Leaving aside the “its reporting” phrase, it is a leap to characterize this as a “long and well established pattern” of anything.  A “long and well established pattern of misleading” would be repeatedly claiming to be a student of Harvard – which elicits thoughts of Cambridge Square – when in reality you attended Harvard Junior College in Idaho.

But then, the statement continues with the Times spokesperson taking sides in how Blumenthal ought to act:

“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.”

That’s a welcome view for the opinion page, not, in my opinion, for someone representing the newsroom.  How can one read fairly any future stories in the Times about Blumenthal knowing the paper’s reporters and editors believe he has an issue with transparency?

With two strikes, I hope the Public Editor of the Times will weigh in, as Colin McEnroe so rightly suggests.  There are some serious issues in the paper’s handling of this story.

That said, there are also some serious issues with how the press in Connecticut reports on its politicians.  It’s a cozy state.  But someone owed it to the people of Connecticut to look into Blumenthal’s military service, especially with Vets events as one of his favorite backdrops. While shrinking newsrooms and expanding workloads don’t make that any easier to do, it’s a shame no one owned this story (or at the very least, the deferment angle) locally.

It is much easier as a reporter on deadline to throw in a line you recall to be correct, rather than make certain its correct.  The problem is that becomes the accepted storyline, the fact.  In the digital age, we can only hope that we correct our mistakes and that our public helps keep us honest, too.

When we call on politicians to be “transparent” in their actions, we ought to be prepared to do the same.

(Glass House photo from Flickr user Melody Kramer; Blumenthal photo from Dick Blumenthal’s Flickr stream.)

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