New York Times headline writer allergic to the word "liar"

Connecticut Attorney-General Richard Blumenthal gave a speech to military vets in which he claimed that "I served in Vietnam." However, Blumenthal "obtained at least five military deferments from 1965 to 1970" and "landed a coveted spot in the Marine Reserve, which virtually guaranteed that he would not be sent to Vietnam. He joined a unit in Washington that conducted drills and other exercises and focused on local projects, like fixing a campground and organizing a Toys for Tots drive."

The New York Times has an excellent story on this.

But as John Naughton points out, the Times' headline writer didn't get the memo. The story is headed "Candidate's Words on Vietnam Service Differ from Reality."

Euphemism, NYT-style


  1. Maybe they’re trying to make sure their corporate speech doesn’t influence an election.

  2. Yeah, this does seem to be outright lying. Still I appreciate that the NYT is trying to sound impartial.

    Frankly, as a former Connecticut Democrat (now living in MA.) who voted for Blumenthal previously, this pisses me off to know end. The chutzpah and contempt for the truth displayed by the man here is disgusting.

  3. I guess the headline “politician lies” is a dog bites man story, so they have to twist up the syntax a little to get it over the boredom filter. Still repugnant of him.

  4. Lest we conclude that the Times is soft-pedaling bad news about a Democratic candidate, the headline for the famous John McCain article that claimed his close relationship with a female lobbyist was a problem said “For McCain, Self-Confidence on Ethics Poses Its Own Risk.” The headlines are often circumspect – that’s the the Times’s style.

  5. To state that the guy’s story doesn’t jive with reality is good journalism, but once you use the word “lie” you assume intent. It’s just possible that the guy is deluded enough to believe his own story.

  6. Seems seems like a pretty thorough and damning story by the NYT. And all that guy can do is gripe the headline might be better if it “screamed” (his word)?


    What’s that noise??? Oh just the sound of the story going right over his head.

    One of the beefs with “msm” these days is too much screaming and oversimplification, not enough good reporting and writing, too much focus on the shallow and on “fake outrage,” blah blah blah. This story is the opposite of all that, seems to me.

    I would also add that understatement is a sign of confidence. Screamers don’t have confidence. Confidence is sexy.

  7. I think the only cover he has is that perhaps he meant to say “I served during Vietnam” which might be accurate. Unless of course that’s in print on his website or some other campaign literature.

  8. It’s not just the headline, it’s the whole article that follows these rules.

    In the article, the reporter lays out a list of times when Blumenthal’s words and stories about him that have appeared in print don’t match the historical record.

    When asked for an explanation, Blumenthal says he misspoke.

    According to the rules of traditional journalism, in a reported piece (as opposed to an editorial or an opinion piece) they aren’t allowed to call him a liar unless he concedes that he lied, because that’s stating an opinion.

    And even then it wouldn’t say “Blumenthal lied,” it would say “Blumenthal admits lying” or “Blumenthal says he lied.”

    It’s not up to the reporter to make those calls.

  9. At other venues and during a campaign debate that’s on video, he makes it plain he never served combat duty in Vietnam. So he wasn’t wedded to the fiction at all times. Whether he deserves to be elected is another matter.

  10. “He joined a unit in Washington that conducted drills and other exercises and focused on local projects, like fixing a campground and organizing a Toys for Tots drive.”

    FWIW, that describes just about every Marine Reserve unit since Toys for Tots was organized in 1947. There are no units “dedicated” to such things, and never have been. And I would suggest “virtually guaranteed” only in retrospect. In 1968 there was a plan to call up and deploy the entire IV MEF (the collective designation of the Marine Reserves), but LBJ elected to leave the Marines out of it. I’m not sure I can fathom a world in which going into the Marines, in any capacity, is any kind of guarantee against seeing combat.

    So it seems like they have trouble with words all around, not just “liar.” Which he is, of course, if he said he served “in Vietnam” and not just “during the Vietnam conflict.”

  11. “Liar” = editorializing. It would not be good journalism to put it in the headline to this story.

    1. dculberson: calling someone out as a liar is not editorializing per se. “Liar” has descriptive content: a liar intentionally says something untrue. If there is intention or not can be sufficiently objectively checked in some cases. For example if a politician publicly says “I will give you X!” and then is overheard saying “Haha, I will NEVER give them X!” in private.

      Anyway, if intention is unclear then “untrue” still works. “Differ from history” seems intended to make something sound less serious than “untrue” would.

    2. This, and the NYT probably has a pretty good team of lawyers advising them on how to avoid a libel claim filed by the CT AG. But that’s just a guess.

  12. Lie lie lie lie lie!
    lie lie lie lie lie!
    you’re a lie
    you’re a lie
    Why you have to lie?

  13. Designers have to meet a certain headline length to fill a page. Sometimes it’s just a simple as that. BoingBoing bloggers should know this. The story shows he’s a liar. I don’t see the problem.

  14. Dave Klecha–Well it WAS a civil affairs unit. Closing with the enemy and killing them wasn’t really part of their brief. Cleaning up tha mess afterwards and trying to run things probably was. But it doesn’t surprise me that a civil affairs unit of the USMC reserve located in DC became a place for the politicly well connected to avoid combat service.

  15. Maybe his unit went through Vienna, Virginia and he misread a sign. “Candidate’s Understanding of Geography Called into Question”.

  16. “Lest we conclude that the Times is soft-pedaling bad news about a Democratic candidate”

    Oh, perish the thought!

    Why, even contemplating the possibility is giving me such a case of the vapours…..

  17. The NYT article has a comments section, which by now has a couple of hundred entries, most of which handily fill in the missing words about lying liars. Many of them either talk about how real Vietnam vets have been treated over the years, or about the morality of avoiding being drafted into a war, or about the different standards for Republicans and Democrats avoiding military service or lying.

  18. Without using the word lie, you can still do better than “differs from history.” Someone who plays down their military record would differ from history, but it wouldn’t really be the same thing. So “Candidate says he went to ‘Nam, never did” is a lot more to the point.

  19. Any good journalist wouldn’t try, hang and convict a person in a news story. That is the editor’s job via the editorial page. From what I understand, the report is simply laying out the facts and not assuming anything about it. Here are the facts:

    1. Richard Blumenthal said he served in Vietnam and was even recorded in various speeches where he talked about serving in Vietnam.

    2. Public documents differ from Blumenthal’s service in Vietnam and show that he most likely didn’t serve in Vietnam and all.

    Now for the layperson, it is pretty easy to see that Blumenthal has some explaining to do and is most likely lying to gain political support (I’m putting my money on that bet). But it is not the reporter’s job to label Blumenthal as a liar, it is the reporter’s job to present the facts in the case and to let the public decide. A reporter’s opinion on whether or not someone is a liar has no business in a news story. Turn on Fox, CNN, MSNBC or some other broadcast stuff to get pundit opinions.

    I don’t think they’re soft peddling here in the headline. If you read the story it is pretty damming evidence against Blumenthal. I just don’t like the fact that someone who isn’t a trained print journalist can bash a perfectly good story because you didn’t use a libelous word in a headline.

  20. I like how the headline also weasels out by calling him “Candidate” rather than “Blumenthal”.

  21. I’m from CT, and a local NPR show was covering this story. The Blumenthal camp is saying that the two instances of him saying he was in vietnam were mis-speakings, and that they don’t control what is said erroneously about him in print.
    They pointed out that all press releases and other print material from them is careful to avoid claiming he served in vietnam, and that he usually does the same in speeches. The fact that they can find one instance in 2003 and another in 2008 from a guy who has been in politics for 25 years seems to bear this out.

    I have no fondness for Blumethal, but this does sound like a simple case of mis-speaking, and not an attempt to lie. Perhaps his camp should have been better about apologizing for his error when he said it, but that is about all I can find fault with here.

    1. Pretending to have served in Vietnam when you didn’t is one thing.

      Pretending to have served in Vietnam when you did everything in your power to make sure you never, ever had to serve in Vietnam is quite another.

      The Vietnam draft was a zero sum game, i.e. when a fortunate son secured a state-side gig via his connections it meant that some mere American was sent to South East Asian in his place.

      To steal the honor/distinction/mojo/whatever of the men that he sent to ‘Nam in his place is simply beneath contempt.

      1. To steal the honor/distinction/mojo/whatever of the men that he sent to ‘Nam in his place is simply beneath contempt.

        I can’t really disagree with this, except perhaps that this is a kind of stealing that, while producing ill-gotten gains for the thief, does not at the same time deprive the robbed of their honor/distinction/mojo/whatever.

        What would be even more contemptible, of course, is if he did all this and then got elected president and started two pointless wars that got even more people killed.

      2. I agree with you. But as others have stated here and what the Time article I linked covers is that he’s always been clear in speeches and campaign materials–over the course of 25 years, mind you–of the nature of his military service. The NYT finds two examples out of those 25 years and runs a story without even mentioning that there is plenty of evidence contrary to their point.

        If you just read the NYT story, you’d come away thinking he was trying to pull a fast one. If you read the Time story, you’d see it as a couple of flubbed lines.

  22. Yeah. I mean, sure, if muck-raking’s good enough for them, it should be good enough for us too, but… blech.

    I don’t agree with his politics, but I really wouldn’t have touched this story with a ten foot pole. It dirties BoingBoing more than Blumenthal. The NYT’s handling was decent, for a muck-raking job, but they still come out smelling of muck.

  23. As others have pointed out, they’re far more allergic to the word libel. That, and the charming old-school notion that intelligent readers don’t need Rachel-Maddow-style w00ts and hisses to form conclusions about information that’s presented in a clear and straightforward way.

  24. New York Times headline writer allergic to the word “liar”

    To consider this news, you musn’t have ever picked up a New York Times at any point during the Bush administration.

    I agree with the broad point of this post — it is galling to see the purportedly most respected news outlet in this country consistently refuse to call a spade a spade, at the expense of communicating important truths to its readership. But choosing this instance to make the point is a little galling, too; in this case, there IS actually some ambiguity about what exact kind of untruth this is.

    Blumenthal has, twice to my knowledge, spoken of his Viet Nam era service in ways that were flatly false. More often, he has used vague language that falls short of lying. And occasionally, he has publicly stated the clear truth. If he’s really trying to sell a false history, that’s a poor way to go about it. It seems obvious he’s trying to create a rapport with veterans beyond what his real service record could easily support, but I think that a paper that won’t call Donald Rumsfeld a war criminal or Dick Cheney a torture-loving sociopath is being consistent at least by stopping short of the “L word” here.

  25. As a dirty campaign tactic, they got the timing wrong.
    He’s already doing damage control and this will be forgotten by election day.

  26. As a legitimate Vietnam Veteran who served in the Central Highlands (Binh Dinh province), when someone says to me they served in Vietnam my first response is always to ask where. For some reason it is important to me even today to place them on that map to better understand how we are connected.

    To have someone who DID NOT serve in Vietnam clearly say that they did, may have more effect on the thoughts of those who DID serve in Vietnam than on those who only read about it.

    For myself, having him say “…when I served in Vietnam” when he was never even near it immediately dismisses him as someone I would ever willingly associate with or have anything to do with. One does not make a “mistake” like that.

    He can’t even bring himself to say it wasn’t the truth or was a lie in his explanations – he only “mispoke.”

    Here’s a hint, Mr. Connecticut Attorney-General: You lied, and to some of us it really does make a difference.

    RVN ’69-’70

  27. I would think Vietnam era vets who did not leave the states would be extraordinarily conscious about the distinction, and be sure to express it clearly.

  28. It’s interesting the cultural difference you get between Americans talking about Vietnam, and anyone else.

    To me, particularly coming from someone who would most likely have been an officer if he’d gone, claiming to be a Vietnam vet just means they were too stupid to get out of it, didn’t have the balls and conviction to be a conscientious objector in a war of aggression against a smaller country, and might even have napalmed some villagers there.

    That says much more about the stereotypes I’ve been exposed to, I guess, than it does about the person making the claim.

    The US gives an unusual level of respect to its soldiers. Many shops proudly and patriotically declare they give the military special rates, for example, even if they aren’t pensioners or disabled. Meanwhile, other people in public service don’t get these rates: often not even those who risk their lives to save others, like the emergency services.

    This is a cultural thing that I guess isn’t expected to make sense to an outsider, but still… it just seems weird that someone would want to claim an association with a war that was even at the time no more popular than the ones we’re currently embroiled in.

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