Posted by: mutantpoodle | May 27, 2010

Our thin-skinned media

I wasn’t going to wade into the whole Richard Blumenthal mess in Connecticut. I thought Blumenthal had been stupid to put himself in a situation where it could be claimed he was overstating his Vietnam-era service; it seemed pretty clear that the New York Times had not reported the instance that (at that time) they had on tape fairly – claiming he’d said during a particular speech that he’d served “in” Vietnam, while failing to note that earlier in that same speech, to the same audience, he’d accurately said that he served “during” Vietnam. (Not to mention that a throaway dig – that Blumenthal claimed to have been the captain of the Harvard swim team when “Records…show that he was never on the team” – turned out to be, well, wrong. Which didn’t stop the Times from doubling down on it.)

Anyway, I had come away thinking that (a) Blumenthal had been an idiot and (b) the New York Times had been played by the campaign of Linda McMahon, which openly bragged that they’d fed the Times information.

Last night, driving home, I am listening to Talk of the Nation, and it’s Wednesday, so Ken Rudin is on talking politics.

I should preface this by saying I have no pre-existing beef with Ken Rudin. He’ a smart guy, a master of political trivia, and his analysis of politics is usually pretty good, if somewhat beltway conventional.

But listening to Rudin’s take on this story nearly caused me to drive off the road.

Talk of the Nation had John Dankosky, News Director of WNPR in Connecticut, and his take, essentially, was that this is a bigger deal in the national press than it is in Connecticut.

NEAL CONAN [host]: How is this story playing out there in Connecticut?

DANKOSKY: Well, it’s interesting. It’s almost like it’s two different stories. The story here in Connecticut is clearly some people are upset with Richard Blumenthal. They’re glad that he made an apology, and some people wish he’d made an apology a little bit sooner.

But it’s almost a different story when you read the national papers. It seems as though nationally this is a story that’s going to crush Dick Blumenthal and that Linda McMahon is going to roll right over him, and this is the end of his career. And around here, we’ve known Dick Blumenthal for a very long time.

I will say that my colleague here, Colin McEnroe, who hosts another talk show that comes on just before TALK OF THE NATION, he surveyed a bunch of reporters who have covered Blumenthal for years and year and years, and to a person none of them said that Dick Blumenthal had made Vietnam service a part of his stump speech.

No one really thought that he was trying to claim that he spent time in Vietnam, that it was indeed, to many of these reporters’ ears, a misstatement.

So Neal and Ken, it’s almost as thought the national media is making more of a deal of this than the Connecticut media is, and the people in Connecticut, while we hear some outrage, for the most part it’s just a different story, it seems.

Conan then notes that Chris Shays has waded into the fray. Keep in mind, at this point, the Times has two instances of Blumenthal misstating his record, until Shays volunteers that he’d seen his “friend” do this as well.

CONAN: …the Times then ran an interview with Chris Shays, the Republican congressman from Connecticut, an old friend of Dick Blumenthal’s, who said wait a minute, I’d heard this creeping into his story from time to time. I now regret not calling him out on this personally and maybe putting a stop to it.

DANKOSKY: Yeah, I’ll also say that some people who know both men have suggested to me that, you know how sometimes politicians call themselves friends when they’re not really friends, and this happens all the time, including on the floor of the Senate, and how close of friends those two guys were beforehand, I’m not really sure. I’m not sure that Dick Blumenthal had Chris Shays over a lot to dinner, and I’m sure he’s not going to have him over much anymore now.

CONAN: I don’t think he can expect a Thanksgiving invitation. Ken?

RUDIN: John, but the point is not whether that Chris Shays and Dick Blumenthal were good friends or not. The point is Chris Shays has never been known as a Republican partisan, somebody who plays these kind of games, and he said he’s heard it over and over again.

And then Rudin goes back to Shays, after Dankosky points out the nuance and ambiguity in the story:

DANKOSKY: …The New York Times piece, when it was released, it only had a snippet of this and you only heard him serving in Vietnam. You didn’t hear the beginning of the speech where he clearly said that he didn’t serve in Vietnam. That came out a day after this Times story and that’s kind of what I mean when I say that it’s played out differently here in Connecticut. A lot of people in Connecticut saw that and it did soften the blow for him. Whether or not he uses that in a speech, or whether or not he just keeps to his guns and says, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. It remains to be seen.

I’ll just say this. I’ve dealt with Dick Blumenthal for a long time. He’s pretty good at staying on message. If he wants to just say, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, he’ll say it 150,000 times because that’s what he does. He stays on message especially after this.

CONAN: Ken?

RUDIN: But John, the key here is that this is not one speech we’re talking about. It is one videotape we have and we keep talking about that to death. But as Chris Shays said, this is not a one-time only instance. It’s happened over and over.

And that’s when I nearly drove off the road.  Because “it’s happened over and over” is based on one source – Chris Shays – who is a Republican that Ken Rudin deems to be above political gamesmanship. (I’d note, too, that the story Rudin references doesn’t use the phrase “over and over” – Shays says he saw instances of this creep into Blumenthal’s speeches, and that the instance that seemed over the line to Shays was one that the Times had already referenced.) I thought, fairly strenuously, that Rudin was dismissing Dankosky’s balanced take because Chris Shays implied that Blumenthal had done this a lot.

So I get home, and I publish this tweet:

@kenrudin’s fluffing of the Blumenthal “scandal” on NPR’s TOTN – dismissing mitigation and fluffing Chris Shays – was nauseating.

(It was a long day – normally I’d have avoided the double-fluff.)

That’s right – I, pajama-clad blogger (although, in the interest of accuracy, I was fully dressed when I typed that) dissed a respected reporter. I had no idea if I’d get a response from Rudin – I’ve gone back and forth with other media types on Twitter – Jake Tapper, Joe Scarborough,  and Chuck Todd, to name three – and while we have disagreed, all have, to their credit, been willing to engage.

Ken Rudin? Not so much.

This morning, I get a a direct message from Rudin, which says the following:

Being called “nauseating” by an “unrepentant lefty” is not the worst thing in the world.

Two notes. First, I refer to myself in my twitter profile as an “unrepentant lefty”, so Rudin, to his credit, got that right. Second, a direct message can only be sent to someone who is following you on twitter, so I couldn’t respond to Rudin in kind, as he does not follow me. Points deducted for that one. (And no – it’s not the worst thing in the world. But being a sloppy reporter, when you’re a…reporter, does kinda suck.)

So I try to respond publicly, to point out (among other things) that I did not call Rudin “nauseating” (label the behavior, not the individual), only to discover that Ken Rudin has blocked me.

Really?

Now, twitter isn’t an ideal medium for discussion, but I’ve had some good back-and-forths over the years, even with people with whom I vehemently disagree. Maybe Rudin had a bad day, but I don’t think my tweet was inaccurate. Rudin was trying to pump up the import of the story, and, in order to do so, had to take Shays at face value, or more accurately, overstate what Shays had said, when that isn’t – how do I say it – what good reporters do. And I was, in fact, nauseated by it.

I tend to think that Colin MCenroe has it right, when he says essentially, that the DC press has one volume setting, and it’s LOUD:

The other part of this is that the national and Washington press can’t really cover a political story that isn’t big and cataclysmic. For the Blumenthal story to feed their shrieking furnace, they need to make it huge, even if that means ignoring the reporters standing on the ground. You can hear Mr. Dankosky gently, politely trying to educate the Talk of the Nation guys about how this looks where he’s standing, in Connecticut, you know, where the people actually vote in the Senate election. And they’re just not buying it.

It’s one thing for Rudin, as an analyst, to say that this makes the Connecticut Senate race a toss-up – (he didn’t say that, in fairness, and good thing – this morning’s Quinnipiac poll shows Blumenthal leading McMahon by 25 points, with most Connecticut voters saying the Vietnam issue isn’t important) – Rudin is someone who is better informed than most, and so his opinion means something. But Rudin, as a reporter, is saying that Blumenthal has misled audiences time and again about his service, and as proof he has one (not terribly damning) instance cited by the New York Times, one unearthed by the Stamford Advocate, and Chris Shays’ vague assertion. I say that doesn’t cut it, and I’d like him to step up and defend his position. Even to an unwashed blogger like me.

Instead of doing the on-line equivalent of hiding under his desk.

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Responses

  1. I heard part of that discussion, and it was really weird, because it was obvious that the way Dankoski saw the story, and Blumenthal, was incomprehensible to Rudin.

  2. PS And as a former Connecticut resident, Dankoski was right on about Blumenthal’s reputation.


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