Journalists muddied by Blumenthal episode

No one will emerge from The Blumenthal Misstatement with his or her dignity intact, or at least with what once resembled dignity. Both politicians and journalists are neck-deep in the big muddy with this one, but for one group, journalists, the damage will persist. Here’s the scorecard:

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal never fired so much as a memo in anger during the Vietnam era but he on occasion claimed, without specificity, that he served in that Southeast Asian hellhole. Ironically, the originator of The Blumenthal Misstatement has already installed miles of P.R. booms and will successfully deflect the oily stuff from washing on the shores of his campaign. All the same, the venerable Blumenthal is no longer as venerated as he was a week ago.

The Senate campaign of Linda McMahon saw something and said something to the New York Times about The Blumenthal Misstatement in expectation of earning Times Square T-shirt vendor-level appreciation for its heroics. McMahon for Senate Campaign staff even talked trash about how they led the Times by the nose to the story, only to moonwalk away from such bravado when pilloried for the unforgivable sin of playing gotcha politics during an election year.

And then there are the journalists.  Things have gone terribly awry when the subject of the reporting blames journalists not for posting stories that are false but for perpetuating a fiction of his own making, whether unintentionally created or not. Even BP executives may get poll numbers higher than journalists this month.

The news organization that broke the story, the New York Times, appeared to be seeking to boost its stock price by outsourcing investigative reporting to political campaign operatives. With constant staff cuts and orders to report news in the ephemeral style of Twitter and Facebook, who can blame journalists for mailing this one in? Stenography isn’t everything; it’s the only thing when there is tweeting to be done.

Where will the muck stick the longest? As noted earlier, Blumenthal has magically become both the Jacob and the Smoke Monster of The Blumenthal Misstatement, something Lost writers never thought possible in their fantasy island of a television program that, unlike Blumenthal’s career, will end on Sunday.

McMahon has yet to win the Republican nomination, so for her, this was a classic win-win, Goldman Sachs-style derivatives play for the campaign. If McMahon wins the nomination, then she has potentially damaged a potential opponent in the general election. If she loses, who cares? It’s back to World Wrestling Entertainment, which given the present political environment would be a return to a saner world.

So who is the biggest loser in this race to the bottom? Alas, poor journalists. The Blumenthal Misstatement reveals nothing new. Politicians and journalists literally and figuratively ride on the same bus, and they treat information and access as commodities such as pork bellies. It’s stuff to trade.

Yet at a moment when journalism needs a Woodward and Bernstein libretto to show that it can survive because it must survive for Democracy to at the least muddle through, we get a political story that was missed in the first instance and was misplayed after that.

The Connecticut press corps did not notice Blumenthal’s occasional inconsistencies with his own record as it raced to reproduce news releases trumpeting victories over Big Tobacco and MySpace, among many others, on behalf of Connecticut citizens. To be sure, the dispersed locations of the remark, generally offered during rubber-chicken-and-cold-peas talks around a state with one hundred and sixty nine towns covered less and less by statewide media, made it difficult to detect moments when Blumenthal strayed from his record. Still, the media needed to be as aggressive with Blumenthal as they ordinarily are when covering other elected officials.

The New York Times responded to criticism about its exclusive by stating that it pursued independent reporting for the story. Yet it strains belief that The Blumenthal Misstatement had its origins in anything but a methodical attempt by a campaign organization to push a news organization toward pursuing a story damaging to a political rival. Even in the age when political operatives routinely post information about opponents on theirs and other political Web sites, there is nothing like the New York Times to give a story at least the veneer of credibility among non-believers, or the independent voters who decide elections.

There’s nothing new with reporters fielding tips from political parties. It happens all the time, but for the most part, the tips are treated for what they are: propaganda and subsequently dismissed. What’s troubling about The Blumenthal Misstatement isn’t that the New York Times published information that clearly emerged first in opposition research. It’s the implication that in this period of constrained news resources, future investigative reporting will depend on the kindness of the strange people who work in the shadows of politics, the kind of people who were once the target of the very journalistic practices they now promote.

Richard Hanley is a journalism professor at Quinnipiac University.

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