Friday, May 21, 2010

Nobody's Perfect

This has been quite a remarkable week. Beginning with being brought onstage with Pearl Jam in recognition of the work Advocacy for Patients does, and ending with a lot of burst bubbles, some mistakes, some lessons learned.

On Tuesday, the NY Times published an article about my former boss, Richard Blumenthal, who is the Connecticut Attorney General, and who is running for Chris Dodd's Senate seat. Mr. Blumenthal is someone for whom I have the utmost respect. However, it appears that, on what may be anywhere from two to a handful of occasions, he said he was "in" Vietnam rather than saying -- as he did most often -- that he was in the Marine Reserves "during" Vietnam. I don't believe for one second that he intentionally lied. How many times have you said "we" when talking about the United States's missions in Iraq, Vietnam, or around the world? Did you mean to be implying that you were actually doing the fighting? Of course not. And as best I can tell from the couple of quotations that have been found, he said things like "when we returned from Vietnam" -- which easily could have meant when the United States returned from Vietnam.

Still, people are upset and offended and calling for him to resign or drop out of the race. This has been very upsetting to me. I could list Mr. Blumenthal's character flaws as I know them, but lying is not one of them, not ever. He said he unintentionally misspoke and I believe him.

The NY Times published this story, though, followed by a really mean-spirited editorial suggesting that this was a "disqualifying character trait, without any regard for the good Mr. Blumenthal has done for Connecticut, taking on big tobacco, health insurers, Microsoft, and thousands of issues on behalf of constituents.

And what makes this all really offensive is that the NY Times got its information from Mr. Blumenthal's Republican opposition. Linda McMahon of World Wrestling fame has admitted she fed the story to the Times. In addition, although the Times posted a snippet of video with the "in" Vietnam line, in the very same speech, Mr. Blumenthal said that he served in the Marine Reserves "during" Vietnam. The Times still has not acknowledged that fact.

But because it's the NY Times, people believe it and they are outraged. Chris Matthews went ballistic on Hardball about this -- also without having researched the matter. Because I know Mr. Blumenthal well, and I think I am pretty objective about his strengths and weaknesses, I have been so disappointed in the NY Times and other media for the way it has handled this matter. You take a story from a political opponent without researching it? You eviscerate a man's entire career even when, if taken in context, his supposedly offensive statement was no big deal? Indeed, I wrote a letter to the editor of the Times which they buried -- mine was the only positive letter they published, and it was nearly impossible to find because they commingled it with a bunch of letters on a tangentially related article.

So I've been upset for Mr. Blumenthal, and very disappointed in the Times.

Now, I'll take you back about a week ago. We have been featured in NY Times stories about health insurance three times. The first time, we paid $1200 for the right to post the story on our website. The two more recent times, we didn't. When the NY Times reprint police (a company called PARS) saw it and told us to either take it down or pay up, I told our webmaster to take it down. He did -- as far as I could tell. On the website itself, there were no links to the PDFs of the articles. However, apparently, he left the PDFs on the server, so when PARS used the old links NOT through the website, but just the links that it had from a week ago, the PDFs came up. I am technologically totally dumb and had no clue that the articles were still anywhere that could be found.

Yesterday, amidst my disappointment in the Times over the Blumenthal mess, I got a threatening letter from the Times telling me to take the articles down or they would sue me. My response was that the articles were already down. The Times insisted I was wrong, so I checked with my webmaster, and he discovered his mistake in leaving the articles on the server. He took the articles down. That should have been the end of the story.

However, the lawyers for the Times were brutal. In email after email -- they accused me of "stealing," of being "ignorant." They combed through this blog for every item from the Times. Although content is republished on a zillion blogs these days, and although my sole purpose in posting content about things like the new health reform law was educational, technically, the Times was right -- but they did what they did with a mean-spiritedness, as if they had caught a burglar red handed. I took everything in this blog down and replaced it with a link. I didn't do it only for NY Times content -- I went through the whole blog and did my best for all content that was not original. (And by the way, posting links is permitted, according to the Times and everyone else I've spoken with.) But that wasn't good enough for the Times. They needed their pound of flesh. They needed to berate me in writing.

So I feel very disillusioned by the Times -- they did their best to ruin the career of someone for whom I have such respect on very shaky grounds, and then they came after me with a vengeance to the extent that you'd think I had stolen the queen's jewels or something. Indeed, I never posted any content without saying where it came from. And quoting sources like the Times is entirely legitimate -- if I wrote something here and included a quotation from the Times, attributed to the Times, they could not say boo about it. And really, I'm running a tiny nonprofit and can't possibly hurt the NY Times in any way. Their vitriol, the way they addressed me, was totally uncalled for and offensive -- as offensive as quoting one remark by Mr. Blumenthal, but not another, clarifying remark made in the same speech. This is the NY Times. They are supposed to be better than that.

So between feeling upset for Mr. Blumenthal and powerless to help, and feeling insulted and demeaned by the Times over things I voluntarily corrected, I felt flattened like a pancake.

But not as flattened as another person whom I have come to care about, Susan Bysiewicz. Susan is our Secretary of the State. She was running for Governor until Mr. Blumenthal announced that he was running for Senator Dodd's seat, when she shifted her aspiration to the Attorney General's Office. Almost immediately, her qualifications were challenged. To be Attorney General in Connecticut, you have to have engaged in the "active practice of law" for 10 years. She did so for at least 6 years. The question became whether her service as Secretary of the State -- including interpreting the election laws -- counted as "active practice of law." She went through a nasty court battle and won, only to have that decision reversed by a unanimous state Supreme Court this week. And now Susan will not be on the ballot this November. While this helps the chances of another person I admire, George Jepsen, who now will have a clear path to the Democratic nomination for Attorney General, I feel very badly for Susan. I can't imagine how awful this must be for her.

This is the kind of week it's been -- the highest high, the lowest low. Lessons learned? Surely, I will never post content from any publication ever again -- you will only see links from here on out. But I also never will spend hours helping NY Times reporters to find patients to interview for their stories, or learning the ins and outs of health insurance -- the three stories in which I was quoted came from my knowledge and experience, and I will not give that away to a publication that does not appreciate it ever again. Even if they are the NY Times.

And stay out of politics -- that's for sure! I hope Mr. Blumenthal is able to weather this storm, and I hope Susan Bysiewicz finds her way back to public service, as I believe she will. If ever I needed to be reminded of why I hate politics, this week has surely done that for me.

And never stop thinking critically and questioning, even the NY Times. They are wrong about Mr. Blumenthal and they refuse to admit it. They were far more aggressive towards me than they needed to be since I voluntarily corrected every alleged transgression. I will never read the NY Times the same way again. If they could be so unfair to Mr. Blumenthal, and right but brutal towards me, then how can I ever rely on them for information? Indeed, how can any of us rely on any media without independent thought and consideration?

Indeed, most of all, I -- we all -- need to be smarter. I should have known better than to post content on this blog. However laudable my goal was of providing you with as much information as quickly as I could, even when I didn't have time to write it all up in my own words, I was wrong. So was Mr. Blumenthal. And truth be told, so was Susan Bysiewicz, who really didn't practice law for 10 years. And so was the NY Times.

A week of many burst bubbles.

But here's the great thing about life: It goes on. And tonight I will be with Pearl Jam again, this time at Madison Square Garden. And Mr. Blumenthal will receive the Democratic nomination for the US Senate at this week-end's convention. And Susan Byseiwicz will run for Joe Lieberman's Senate seat in two years. And the NY Times will keep doing what it does, even when it's wrong, with impunity because it is the NY Times. And after enough time passes -- a year, two years, five years -- I'll probably talk to a NY Times reporter again, too. Life goes on, every day a chance at redemption and a clean slate.

Onward and upward. Jennifer

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