Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut’s attorney general and a Democratic candidate for the United States Senate, misrepresented his service record — claiming to have served in Vietnam when, in fact, he did not.

Chris Matthews, on Hardball Tuesday night, had smoke blowing out his ears, condemning Blumenthal’s misrepresentation as “unspeakable”. Matthews couldn’t contain his outrage — “I don’t know how you could lie about such a thing.” The only moral course for Blumenthal, Matthews suggested, was to fall on his sword, and if he doesn’t, then the Senate — that body of high virtue and moral standards — maybe should refuse to seat him if he’s elected. “The United States Senate cannot take on the morally dead weight of this candidate without honor.”

Blumenthal received five deferments from the draft before joining a United States Marine Corps Reserve unit in Washington, DC in 1970. He served six months active duty, going through Marine boot camp at Parris Island, and then attended Reserve meetings and participated in summer exercises for six years. He did not serve in Vietnam, never heard a shot fired in anger, and never apparently was in danger of losing his life while on active duty.

Blumenthal has been Connecticut’s attorney general for 19 years. He has on at least one occasion in public alluded to having served in Vietnam. He characterized his misrepresentation in a news conference on Tuesday as “misplaced words”. On at least one other occasion, while debating on television, Blumenthal stated that he did not serve in Vietnam. Today he apologized for having “misspoken” about having served there and said he regretted doing it.

Misrepresenting your service record is bad, especially falsely claiming to have been in combat. Let’s get that out of the way. But doing so doesn’t make Blumenthal a moral leper. He wasn’t a traitor to his country. He didn’t sell nuclear secrets to the Russians or give aid and comfort to the enemy. In fact, in the end he didserve, albeit in a cushy kind of way.

And, before I get to my big wind-up, a little full disclosure. I served in the United States Marine Corps from 1966 until 1968. In truth, I was drafted into the Marine Corps. Yes, the Marine Corps doesn’t like to broadcast the fact, but they do draft when they need more than a few good men, and I guess I was good enough. No, I did not go to Vietnam. I went to Norway, the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, but not to Vietnam. I didn’t do anything to get out of it and I didn’t try to go, either. While I was in the Mediterranean with a battalion landing team for six months, I did get orders to Vietnam, but they were canceled because I was already deployed in what was considered an equivalent activity. Go figure.

To the best of my memory I have never claimed to have been in Vietnam. I did think, for the first year of my enlistment, that I would surely be going there. I lucked out, or missed out, depending on your point of view.

But enough about me.

My recollection from the late ’60s is that a lot of young men of Blumenthal’s age tried to avoid going into the military. They didn’t want to go to Vietnam. Vietnam was, when all is said and done, a stupid war. A lot of young Americans and a whole lot of Vietnamese were killed or maimed for no good reason. My hat comes off for those who did serve even though, in the end, their sacrifice served no good purpose for the country that sent them there to fight.

Now, how about Chris Matthews? Was he, as he put it in his Tuesday television harangue, “in it”? Actually, no. Chris didn’t go to Vietnam. He didn’t go into the Marines, or the Army, Navy or Air Force. Chris went into the Peace Corps and served in Africa from 1968 until 1970. Peace Corps service is national service and having served is definitely something to be proud of.

But if Chris Matthews thinks it was so important to be “in it” back then, why wasn’t he “in it”? He could have enlisted. What was on his mind when he joined the Peace Corps? (For those too young to know or who have forgotten, Peace Corps service generally got you out of the draft back then).

Can we get over this now, please? Vietnam was 40 years ago. Shame, shame on Richard Blumenthal for misrepresenting, or misspeaking or whatever he did. He has nothing to be proud of as far as that goes.

But who appointed Chris Matthews the spokesman for duty, honor and country? Come on down, Chris. Save the moral indignation and hot air for something truly disgraceful. Plenty of opportunities will present themselves in the days and months ahead. You can count on it.

Does Elena Kagan eat meat? Is she a vegetarian, or a vegan? Does she observe Jewish dietary laws? Does she keep the Sabbath?

I’d like to know, and I’m sure other Americans would like to know the answer to these questions. Of course, there’s no way of knowing how many Americans without doing a poll to find out. Apparently, some Americans would also like to know whether or not Elena Kagan is a lesbian. After all, she’s 50 and isn’t married. Does she date anyone of the opposite sex? If she does, aren’t we entitled to know whether she sleeps with this person? Once again, we don’t know how many Americans are interested in these questions, but that ignorance does not prevent some (there it is again) in the media from claiming that hordes of Americans want to know.

That begs the question, if people want to know, are they entitled to an answer? Actually, no. Just because they want to know and think they have a right to know doesn’t mean that they should be satisfied. Well, the answer goes, that’s part of their value system, and regardless of whether or not I care about the question, they do.

If she’s a lesbian, maybe that predisposes her to favor gay marriage and gay adoptions. So she would be biased in that way. But wait. If she isn’t a lesbian and favors gay marriage and gay adoption and believes that gays and lesbians are entitled to equal protection under the law, then what? In other words, if she can arrive at the same position without being a lesbian, why would the same position be discredited if she were a lesbian?

We know that she’s not going to be asked questions about her sexual orientation during her confirmation hearings, and, even if she were, she wouldn’t answer them. Nor, in all likelihood will she answer questions with any specificity about abortion rights, healthcare, the commerce clause of the Constitution or reading defendants their Miranda rights. The custom now is for Supreme Court nominees to reveal as little as possible about their beliefs and constitutional philosophy in their confirmation hearings. They may even obfuscate and dissemble. See, for example, the confirmation hearings for Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.

So apparently some members of the media have come forward to guard the public interest by raising questions about nominees and speculating, whether or not the questions or the speculation have any relevance to the qualifications of the nominee.

The Supreme Court now has six Roman Catholics sitting on it. Once upon a time in America, that would have brought mobs out into the streets. Now, hardly anyone notices. A justice’s religious beliefs may or may not influence his or her thinking in coming to a decision, but the entire panoply of our experiences influences our thinking and decisions. Why focus on one aspect of a person’s character or experience and elevate that to paramount importance?

And even if, and it’s a big if, some group, because of its value system, demands to know one thing or another of questionable relevance about a nominee, the media are not obligated to raise the question. We’re here to exercise judgment and—excuse me for exhibiting a little elitism here—tell people what we think they need to know, which isn’t the same thing as what they may want to know. People seem to want to know a great many things about public officials that are of questionable value to the well being and future of the Republic.

Let’s not confuse the desire to know with the need to know.

Today’s announcement that The Washington Post has put Newsweek up for sale is obviously another indication of how the news business is changing. Newsweek already had scaled back and was in the process of becoming a digital operation, with the print edition taking a back seat. It was losing money, though, and according to the statement of Don Graham, chairman of The Washington Post Company, the Post didn’t see a way that it could reverse the trend.

News magazines may have outlived their usefulness in a world where anyone can have access to up-to-the-minute news reports 24/7. Waiting a week to read what you already know doesn’t make much sense, and there are so many voices out their already commenting that the loss of a couple of weekly voices may not seem to matter much.


Jon Meacham, Newsweek’s editor, appeared on the Daily Show tonight to talk about the sale, what’s going on in journalism and the importance of publications like Newsweek to American democracy. He made two points that have been made here in the past couple of weeks. 1) that if people aren’t ready to pay for news, “they should be prepared to get a different kind of news”; and, 2) that in an increasingly fragmented world, Newsweek and other publications like it constitute a source of information that people have in common.

We need to be drawing on the same pool of information if we’re going to have any kind of dialogue. Meacham repeated another point made here, that the informati0n may not be accurate 100 percent of the time in a publication like Newsweek, or The Washington Post, or Time, or the New York Times, but they make an honest effort to get it right and avoid blatant bias.

We need to hear facts that we may not like, and we need to get used to the idea that there’s no free lunch. Someone has to pay for all those reporters running around–occasionally risking their lives–to gather information. They love their jobs, of course, but they have to eat and support their families. If no one wants to pay them, they’ll have to find another line of work. Once again, quoting King Lear, nothing comes from nothing.

Almost nine years ago, Cass Sunstein, then a law professor at the University of Chicago, wrote an article for the Boston Review arguing that the Internet posed a danger to democracy because of its potential for ghettoizing groups according to their views and interests: The Daily We—Is the Internet really a blessing for democracy?.

I confess I had not read the article until this morning when I read David Brooks’s column in the New York Times citing Sunstein’s article. Although I had never read the article, I have written much the same thing here (in a much pithier way if I do say so myself). Brooks takes issue with Sunstein, and I guess by extension, me. He cites a new study by Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapiro at the University of Chicago that disputes Sunstein’s argument. Brooks says that the Gentzkow-Shapiro study verifies that conservatives tend to gravitate toward Internet sites that reflect their views, and liberals do the same. But, Brooks says of the study, “the core finding is that most Internet users do not stay within their communities.” Brooks says the study shows that they move around, grazing here and there, and not necessarily in places where they agree with what they’re reading. If you want to read the study, by the way, it will cost you $5 to download it and I haven’t decided whether I want to shell out the money or not. At the moment I’m willing to accept Brooks’s reporting of it.

First of all, I’m skeptical about the Gentzkow-Shapiro findings even if I haven’t read them first hand. This is only one study, and I don’t know anything about the methodology.

Even if I did accept their findings, I still have a problem with all of these new sites. Once again, who are the people behind the sites? How thorough are they in gathering information? What is their agenda? Who checks their reports and how careful are they? Newspapers—good ones anyway—have a careful vetting process, endeavoring to insure that what they print is correct, thorough and fair. Obviously they don’t always succeed in that effort, but that’s the professional standard that they measure themselves by.

Back in the day, when I worked for The Washington Post, I used to attend the daily story conference where each section of the paper pitched its offerings for the front page. Questions were raised only occasionally about a particular story in that meeting, but a later meeting—the front-page conference—was a different matter. At the second meeting, the same editors met, but then they were confronted with a layout of the proposed front page for the next day’s paper. The editor from any section with a story being considered for the front page had to be prepared to defend his or her stories, answer questions, often penetrating, from colleagues and explain why that story merited front-page display. The other editors almost always had read the stories proposed for the front page by the time of the second meeting, and it wasn’t unusual for them to find holes in the reporting.

That kind of peer review made the paper better. It also served as yet another filter that stories had to pass through on their way into the paper. All stories were typically read by at least two, sometimes three or four editors before making it into print.

What’s the vetting process for online news and opinion sites where anyone—yes, including me—can say or write anything without a reader knowing whether it’s true, false or a total fabrication?

So maybe the Internet won’t cause the ghettoization of news and opinion even though the diversity of choices will mean that we’ll have in common fewer experiences and sources of information (another point where Sunstein and I agree); but it’s going to be increasingly difficult to know the source the news and opinions we can get from the Internet.

And that can’t be a good thing.

Since I started writing this, Apple has released the iPad. I’m not going to get into whether it’s revolutionary or not, but iPad does begin to address the issue of portability. It is lighter than a laptop, apparently has better resolution, and the availability of WiFi and 3G means that a user can access the Internet from almost anywhere. That’s all to the good.

The idea of the iPad isn’t entirely new. Back in the ’90s Apple released something called the Newton, which was a clunklier, less powerful version of the iPad. The Newton was a bust

It’s great to have something with the capability of the iPad. The issue isn’t whether or not the iPad replaces newspapers, because the method of delivery isn’t as important as what is delivered and who is delivering it. News on paper isn’t the issue. The critical question is what and who are behind the presentation of the information. What are the professional standards of the people sending out the information? What kind of vetting process do they use in editing what they present? Who are they? What kind of ethics do they adhere to?

Whether or not the iPad is the last word in electronic delivery of the news is less important than the answers to those questions despite the nostalgia that some readers–primarily older readers–have for the feel of paper between their fingers as they read the news.

In fact, electronic delivery solves a lot of the problems dogging the news industry by cutting overhead. If newspapers hadn’t been so naive and gullible about the Internet–especially the idea that everything should be free–they might have been able to make the transition from paper to digital presentation without hemorrhaging as many subscribers as they have. That’s all water over the dam at this point. What’s important is to find a way to preserve the institution of the news organization with all of its values, standards, practices and ethics regardless of how the news is delivered.

And, at the risk of saying the emperor has no clothes, it probably will mean that people will have to pay for it. Otherwise you will be getting what you pay for. And, as King Lear said, nothing will come of nothing

We live in an age of aggregation. Supermarkets have replaced vegetable stands and butcher shops. Pharmacies have now become drug stores, which carry cosmetics, shampoo, snack and groceries, and, incidentally, fill prescriptions. Shopping malls make it possible to buy more than we really need in one place.

Newspapers are another aggregator. Besides national, foreign and local news, newspapers offer sports, recipes, household hints, calendars of coming events, reviews of movies, plays and books (although reviews may soon be a thing of the past). In days gone by, if your town had a good newspaper, you could keep up with your community and the rest of the world just by reading your local paper.

Times have changed. Newspapers are closing all over the country, but a lot of people don’t seem to mind because they can still get their news on the Internet. The New York Times and The Washington Post, to name two papers that certainly deserve to be called “good”, still offer news up for free on the Internet.

You can also go to Google, or Yahoo, or any number of other sites and get news without paying. Where do they get their news? Google and Yahoo and a lot of other so-called news sites get their news either directly or indirectly from conventional, old technology sources, like the New York Times, The Washington Post or the Associated Press.

But what if newspapers went out of business entirely? Where would Google, Yahoo and the rest of the free news sites get their news? Would they build their own news-gathering organizations? Would they charge for it? Would readers be willing to pay, and, if so how much? Google certainly could afford to create a news gathering organization. It would only cost a billion dollars or so (maybe more) to build a national and international news operation, but would the investment be worth it?

Local news might be another story. In many instances, local news as we know it might just disappear because there wouldn’t be enough money in it to make it profitable for anyone to set it up.

We started out by assuming that Google or Yahoo or someone would be willing to make the investment required to build a decent news organization.

But what if none of them was willing? What then? We’ll talk about that possibility, and the new world of disaggregation—or fragmentation—next time.

It’s no revelation to say the American newspaper industry is facing a crisis, even a matter of survival. Newspapers pre-date the Republic. They have been our foundation of news for more than 300 years. Neither radio nor television ever succeeded in replacing newspapers as our main source of news.

Even today, with the viral growth of the Internet, newspapers remain the foundation, albeit an increasingly shaky one, of news here, but it’s undeniable that we’re witnessing the end of an era. The numbers are quite clear. In 1940, when the population of the United States was 150 million, American newspapers sold 41 million copies a day. By 1945, 48 million copies were sold every day. The growth in circulation continued, although at a slower pace, until 1984, when it peaked at 63 million. By then, U.S. population had grown to 236 million. Newspapers were still profitable, very profitable in many instances, but newspaper owners were becoming aware that circulation wasn’t keeping pace with the population growth.

The trend changed in 1984. By 1994, daily circulation was down to 59 million. Ten years later, it was 54.5 million. Between 1994 and 2007, daily paid circulation declined by nine million copies. (U.S. Census Bureau,Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2010, Table 1099. Daily and Sunday Newspapers—Number and Circulation, Total:1991 to 2008 and by State, 2008) The number of daily newspapers dropped from 1,548 to 1,422. The decline continues.

What, if anything, is going to take the place of news on paper in America? The most obvious answer is the Internet, but that begs the question where will Internet news come from? Behind most of the “free” news websites are newspapers. They supply the wherewithal to gather and publish what we read, whether we get it on paper or on a computer screen. Newspapers are still footing most of the bill. Secondary websites that feature news often are getting it by rewriting material they’ve cadged from newspaper sites or from the Associated Press, which is still fundamentally a creature supported by newspapers.

Televised news, now leaner than ever,  would be helpless without newspapers offering up a menu of stories for local stations to browse through to decide what to cover. National Public Radio makes a valiant effort to cover Washington, America and the world, but there aren’t enough hours in the day to do it justice, especially when the average news item is two or three minutes long and news reports are only two hours in the morning, and another two in the evening

Change is always painful. Those of us who devoted our professional lives and made our living at newspapers lament the passing of the old order. But there’s no use in crying over spilt milk or trying to figure out how to turn the tide. Some of the proposed solutions, such as government- subsidized news gathering and publishing in one form or another, promise to create more problems than they would solve. No matter how well insulated news organizations would supposedly be, inevitably politicians would claim the right to look over the shoulders of reporters and editors as they decide what to publish and what not to. Who pays the piper calls the tune. It’s just that simple.

None of the proposals—whether for micropayments, altruistic angels purchasing failing newspapers, government subsidies, or any variation or combination of them—holds out a remote promise of being able to generate the amount of income needed to support the level of journalistic enterprise we have had and continue to need in order to provide our citizens with the information they require to sustain democracy in America. We are surely all too aware that there are plenty of voices, and more than adequate resources to fund them, that are ready to invent, or distort, news to help shape the future in ways that we will find grotesque.

There are, however, some promising efforts being made to continue the finest traditions of American journalism. A number of organizations involved with investigative reporting have formed a consortium to further their shared goal of protecting the public interest from government, corporate and other special interests.  Where will the money come from to support these efforts? Will it be enough to take up the slack as newspapers fade away.

A great deal of attention is being paid to the promise of the Internet—to its speed, to its ubiquity. Anyone, supposedly, can now be a reporter. Anyone, like me, with a computer, a little money, opinions to air and a little (or a lot) of ego can go online, set up a soapbox and start preaching. Whether or not we get heard is another matter. In fact, the profusion of news and opinions creates a problem.

Is more necessarily better? How can we choose what to read? With so much available, how will we know where to look and what to look for? Go to look for something on Google and you could wind up with more than a million choices. With all this “information” instantly available, how are we going to judge its accuracy? How will we know what to believe and trust and what to be skeptical about? How will the truth catch up with the viral spread of a lie? And how long will it be before fat corporations muscle their way in to dominate this new medium and drown out other voices?

These are the kinds of questions I want to bring up for discussion here in the coming weeks and months. Won’t you join in?