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Clear it with SidneyHow our blog got its name >

 
Notes on journalism for the common good
by Lindsay Beyerstein

How our blog got its name

Sidney Hillman was a powerful national figure during the Great Depression, a key supporter of the New Deal, and a close ally of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

When the rumor spread that President Roosevelt ordered his party leaders to “clear it with Sidney” before announcing Harry S. Truman as his 1944 running mate, conservative critics turned on the phrase, trumpeting it as proof that the president was under the thumb of “Big Labor.”

Over the years, the phrase lost its sting and became a testament to Hillman's influence.

It's hard to imagine a labor leader wielding that kind clout today, but we like the idea—and we hope Sidney would give thumbs up to our blog.

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The Times and Its Sources

Above the Fold

         The New York Times reported yesterday that Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal had lied about serving in Vietnam, although he was a member of the Marine Corps reserves during the Vietnam War.

     The next day, the Times reported that his best-financed Republican opponent, Linda McMahon--the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, who promises to spend up to $50 million of her own money in the campaign--had taken credit for feeding the story about Blumenthal to the Times.

          “Ms. McMahon’s campaign sought to claim credit for aspects of The Times’s article, apparently in a bid to impress Republican delegates that her resources would give her the greatest chance of defeating Mr. Blumenthal, who had seemed invincible,” David M. Halbfinger and James Barron write in today’s paper.

    All of which left this reader with one glaring question: Was it true that the Times was prompted to do this hatchet job on Blumenthal by one of the candidate’s mortal enemies?

   If McMahon’s campaign was the source of the original story, it probably made a deal with the reporter to shield its identity.  But once the story had appeared and her campaign had taken credit for it on its own website, clearly the Times was no longer bound by any such agreement.  So why did it report that she “sought to take credit for aspects of The Times article”–but then failed to tell the reader whether she really was the source or not?

   FCP telephoned Times metropolitan editor Joe Sexton, and was told that he was off for the day.   Then David Halbfinger told FCP he would “not be interviewed for a blog,” and referred FCP to the metro political editor, Carolyn RyanJames Barron  also referred FCP to Ryan; then Barron went off the record--to refuse to provide FCP with Ryan’s e-mail address.  By happy coincidence, ten minutes later, FCP received an e-mail from another Times editor which just happened to include Ryan’s address.

   FCP then left a voicemail for Ryan, and followed up with an e-mail, both of which were apparently passed to Times spokeswoman Diane McNulty, who wrote FCP: “As a matter of general policy, The Times does not discuss sourcing for its stories. The reporting about AG Blumenthal’s Vietnam War era service was based on many sources and countless hours of research.”

   Of course, the truth is, a reporter’s first obligation is to reveal as much as he can in his own story about who his sources are–which is why the paper requires every reference to an anonymous source to include an explanation of why the source needed to be anonymous.

   In any case, McNulty’s statement ignored the fact that the author of the original Times story, Ray Hernandez, had discussed the sourcing of his story on the Brian Lehrer Show  on NPR yesterday, when Hartford political reporter Colin McEnroe pressed him on whether or not McMahon’s campaign had been his original source.

   “In general I don’t discuss this level of detail” about his sources, Hernandez said.  Pressed again, Hernandez said, “Did this story have its origins in the McMahon campaign? The answer is no.  This story was the product of independent, dogged reporting.”  But then Hernandez seemed to undercut his own denial when he added, “So, the point of the question is what?  Does it mean what you see or reading is not so?"

   As one former top editor of The Times e-mailed FCP this evening, “Hernandez on Brian Lehrer sounds very lame--unprepared to deal with the sourcing issue.”  And another former top editor of the paper agreed that it was outrageous for the Times not to tell its readers in its own story whether or not McMahon was its source–especially after reporting that her campaign had said that it was.

   It is certainly true that on one occasion–and only one occasion which the Times could document–Richard Blumenthal did say the words "I served in Vietnam." And a couple of other times he said ambiguous things about his service in the Marine Corps Reserves that might or might not imply that he served in Indochina.  But it is also true that during a debate with another Senate candidate, Blumenthal made it clear that he had not served in Vietnam.

    Today a new Ramussen poll showed Blumenthal's support plummeting because of the Times story.  But many of Hartford’s most senior political reporters said they had never heard Blumenthal misrepresent his military service.

    For example, on Hartford’s Channel 8 tonight, the station’s veteran political reporter, Mark Davis, declared, “I’ve covered him for 30 years and I’ve never, ever heard him say he served in Vietnam.”

    In a post on the Harford Courant website, Colin McEnroe–who is another widely-respected political reporter–made the following points, all of which FCP heartily agrees with:

* Raymond Hernandez's story is paper-thin and overplayed. No question, he's got one video clip in which Blumenthal says he was in Vietnam. And he's got, five years earlier, a quote attributed to Blumenthal where he says "we" in way that's at least open to multiple interpretations. And that's it. That -- and those recollections by Jean Risley who has apparently repudiated the Times's reporting -- are the whole basis for his huge above-the-fold page one story. In all the other times that Blumenthal put his military service on the record, as far as I can tell, he's been truthful about who he was. Certainly, in his debate with Merrick Alpert, he clearly said he did not serve in Vietnam.

*  If Blumenthal can produce extensive evidence that he's been truthful, repeatedly, about his service record, it would be fair to ask whether the Times has taken one stumble or slip of the tongue and turned it into a page one story alleging, without really proving, a pattern of deception.

*  I'm disturbed by the divergence in accounts between the McMahon campaign and Hernandez about where this story came from. Hernandez's defensiveness with me on the Brian Lehrer show was odd, especially his insistence that he does not discuss in detail how he gets his stories. I thought the drift of the Times, post-Jayson Blair, favored full disclosure of sources unless there were a material reason for letting them go off the record. Certainly the McMahon campaign doesn't seem to have considered itself off the record.

*  Some of you asked whether the provenance of the information matters. It's not the primary issue in this story, but it does matter. The SPJ Code of Ethics is clear that the motivation of sources matters. I think there's a difference between a story that is the fruit of hundreds and maybe thousands of hours of opposition research, combing tapes and transcripts for a Blumenthal slip-up, and a story that evolves organically in the way Hernandez is claiming this one did, after he "had heard varying stories" about Blumenthal's inflation of his record.

   And then there is this.  Hernandez wrote in his piece that "in early1968" President Johnson "abolished nearly all graduate deferments and sharply increased the number of troops sent to Southeast Asia."  But only half of that statement is true.

    Johnson did abolish nearly all graduate deferments--but LBJ (very famously) rejected William Westmoreland's request for 206,000 additional troops, on top of the 510,000 already serving in Vietnam in March of 1968.  Instead, Johnson withdrew from the race for the presidency, and approved only 13,500 additional troops for the war--an increase of less than 3 percent over the number already there in March of 1968.

    On this point, Times night metro editor Peter Khoury told FCP, “I spoke with Ray Hernandez, who provided me with figures showing the number of US troops in Veitnam went from 485,000 at the end of 1967 to 536,100 at the end of 1968, an increase of more than 10 percent.  We feel the wording was appropriate.” 

   Whether or not a 10 percent increase is "sharp increase," there's another problem with Khoury's statement: According to The New York Times of October 9, 1967, the number of troops in Vietnam at that moment was 500,000--not the 485,000 Hernandez told his editor.

   You could look it up--in your own archive.

Martha Ritter contributed essential  reporting from Hartford.

 

                                                                -30-

 

Update: Colin McEnroe is now reporting that he has heard from nine senior Connecticut reporters today--all of whom said they had either heard Blumenthal describe his military service correctly, or, they had never heard him say he had served in Vietnam.   Just one photographer remembered things differently.

Second Update: It's interesting that Carolyn Ryan was willing to go on MSNBC's  Morning Joe to promote the Hernandez story yesterday, but refused to answer any questions from FCP about it today.

 
 

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